Language Control

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Today at work we had a language control, of sorts.

I was working with three other coworkers, one of which is Flemish, so Dutch is his first language and two others, both of which can speak well enough to take orders and understand questions that are work related (i.e. someone asks what a vanilla latte is or asks if we can make a cappuccino with decaf), but who don’t necessarily understand everything being said by a customer, especially if the customer is using dialect or slang.

So, when the strange guy came by the Flemish coworker was on his break and not around and I was on the other side of the kiosk avoiding the stranger since he was wearing a suit and tie and was standing by the side of the kiosk instead of in front, which usually means he’s some salesman trying to sell us eco-friendly light bulbs or some other product that our corporate office could care less about.

The coworker who initially started talking to him was, unfortunately, one of the ones who has only lived here a year and is not incredibly fluent in Dutch. He couldn’t figure out what the stranger was saying, but he, for some reason, thought the guy was foreign and began speaking in English, first to the guy, then to me. The stranger then asked if there was anyone who spoke Dutch working and I sighed and went over, confused and not wanting to be bothered by another salesperson.

I asked if he was selling something and he replied that no, he was actually from NMBS (the organization that runs the trains in Belgium) and he’d come by to check on our kiosk because there’d been complaints that our employees don’t speak Dutch well enough.
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. I’d say most of us working in the kiosk are fairly fluent in Dutch. Not perfect, certainly, but very good. Yes, there are a few who should probably be better in it, but what it boils down to is simply that my manager can only hire people who apply. If none of her applicants are native or fluent Dutch speakers, but she has to hire someone, she takes the best of what she gets.

So I explained that when we hire we try as best we can to fill the position with people who are at a certain level of Dutch, but that if we’re very short handed, sometimes we have to make do with the people who still needed to work on their Dutch.
The controller then told me my Dutch was good and asked what level I was considered. I told him that I had passed level five of the six offered through Gent University and granted, I hadn’t written an essay in a long time, but otherwise I did pretty well in conversation. He then said (in front of the 1 colleague that had spoken in English) that my Dutch was just fine for this job, but that my other colleague’s wasn’t.

Again, what the hell am I supposed to say to that?
First, I didn’t hire the guy. Second, I found it incredibly rude that he spoke like that in front of my coworker. And third, it’s not like I could say,’ “You’re right, this guy has really bad Dutch, I’ll be sure to have him fired for you.”

So instead I offered the controller the number to call my manager if he had any concerns he wanted to follow up. He said it wasn’t needed as he’d already spoken to our regional manager (who, so you know, speaks absolutely no Dutch) about it. I shrugged, said okay and went back to making drinks.

When my Flemish colleague returned I told him about it, just so he knew what had upset my other two colleagues (who were now pretty stressed about their job security). He wasn’t thrilled, but like me, there’s not much he could do about it. Eventually the dust settled and the shift ended, but it left me thinking.

I’m really not sure what to make of this, in general. Obviously language isn’t a threat to my current job security, although it certainly hinders me in getting some other jobs in Belgium. It was such an issue for me at first, despite all the effort I put into learning the language, that I tend to become instantly defensive and hostile when speaking Dutch becomes an issue with employment, even if it has  nothing to do with me.

My coworkers, for the most part, work hard and earn a salary and pay the taxes that go to Belgian pensions. The ones that aren’t fluent in Dutch are mostly in classes and trying to learn the language. There are plenty of unemployed Flemish people who are more than happy to receive their unemployment checks and look for something “worthy” of their time as a job, rather than take the crap jobs that the foreigners end up taking, but they’re also more than  happy to complain or treat those foreigners doing the jobs they don’t want as something less than them.
Why do we not have Flemish people working at my job? Because no Flemish people apply for it! They can make almost as much as I make a month with an unemployment check. Why work in a sweltering kiosk in cramped working conditions serving tourists and commuters coffee when they can make almost as much “job hunting” from the comfort of their home?

But at the same time, I truly do agree that if you’re going to live in a country you should speak the language spoken there if you want successful employment/integration. It’s true, we should only be employing people who are fluent or at least very good in Dutch to work in the kiosk, since it is customer service. If I got to get food or a drink in America, I expect the person taking my order to understand me and be able to answer questions in English. Not perfect English, mind you, but decent English. So yes, of course, Flemish customers should expect us to speak decent Dutch.

But I’ve been on the other side of it. In some ways, I still am. I know how hard it is and how hostile some people can be if you simply don’t know a word they’re using and it’s throwing your whole comprehension of the sentence off. I know how it is to have a mental block and mix up two words constantly* only to realize later that I must’ve sounded like a total moron. I know what it feels like to desperately need work in a country where no one wants to bother with you unless you’re excellent in their language.
It’s difficult and can make life feel impossible and sometimes you just need that one person to cut you a break and let you learn as you go.

So where do you draw the line?
When no native speaking people want the job and your main job pool is foreigners, how do you know when to cut that break for that person who truly wants and needs the job, versus turning a person down because they simply can’t communicate on the level that native speakers expect?

*I had to file a police report once on missing money and was constantly confusing the words bedrag (amount) with gedrag (behavior). I still have to think extra hard to remember which is which.

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6 responses »

  1. That’s a tough one. We have a considerable Asian population where I live and for a long time, especially when the Hmong were first immigrating to our area, they didn’t really speak good English. Unfortunately, many people were very intolerant and blocked them from getting jobs so they could afford to take classes to learn English. The fact that your coworkers are working to learn the language and working and paying taxes seems to be a productive use of time and resources. Also, one of the best ways to learn a language is to use it daily, and taking orders at a coffee kiosk would certainly qualify, I would think.

    Frankly, what concerns me most is that the train management sent someone to just randomly complain about the language skills, rather than addressing the manager/owner directly. I think that was in very poor taste and — because I’m a suspicious person — leads me to believe it was a personal problem for him so he used his “position” to make an “official” complaint.

  2. I have come to the conclusion that many many Belgians are snobs. And quite honestly, that country has absolutely no right to turn up their noses at our system when they can literally sit at home and get paid quite a pretty penny for being unemployed. It is at that level that socialism STINKS, big time…it is totally and completely ABSURD that you have not been able to get a job in the field for which you are QUITE qualified because of not being able to pass an advanced written test…it is blatantly STUPID.

    THose kind of Belgians are clearly just as snotty as upper-class Long Island lockjaw white types here in this country who would rather sit at home than flip a burger. THANK GOODNESS for foreigners in BOTH countries who do work the grunt jobs…if we didn’t have those people…who would take care of the upper crust…OMG, they would have to do it for themselves…..

    Ya know what, there is pride in work…any kind of work and I would much rather be at work in a coffee kiosk doing the best I can with a new language that to be sucking the system…but then, I do have a work ethic…..

    What do the Walloons do????

  3. Oh, what Virtual Sprite said about that surprise visit…There was no reason whatsoever for ANY of you to address anything that he said. The manager should have been called immediately, the end. I am also learning that the people in ‘governing’ roles in many levels are rather sneaky and deceitful over there as well…nice place to visit……..wouldn’t want to live or work there, even if I did speak fluent Dutch and French and lord knows what else they’d demand….

  4. Wow that’s a really tough situation to be in. I think just as much as there are expectations of you guys there should be some for the man who made that visit. It was so tactless of him to talk like that in front of the person. I hope you told your manager about how poorly he handled it!

  5. The problem in Belgium is that everyone is so touchy about the language issue. The fact that there are specific rules about this kind of stuff, rather than people using their common sense, means that things like this happen. If your colleagues are capable of doing their jobs, that should be the end of it.

    You should have spoken French to the guy, I bet he would have loved that!

  6. Yeah there’s 2 sides to the story as you describe it very well….Belgians not willing to take some jobs, feeling too good for it, and a huge language sensitivity at the other side. Yet I find your mom’s sharp comment quite over the top too. I’d appreciate a little bit of nuance there and I’m sure she’ll be happy to know that if you ever loose your job again you are entitled to unemployment benefits that as you say will give you almost as much money as you make now, paid by all those snobbish Belgians that do work.

    As for the NMBS guy coming to complain…somehow I doubt he has any authority whatsoever because I’m sure real complaints will be dealt with differently. I’d not worry about him, although people like him would piss me off.

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