Jewish World Review July 27, 2001 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5761

Greg Crosby

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Consumer Reports

Putting Spanish First -- WHEN I use the bank ATM, one of the first questions the machine asks is whether I'd like to communicate in English. This immediately puts me in a foul mood and I'm tempted to type in the few Spanish obscenities that I know. But I never do. I never do because the ATM does not come equipped with letters on their keypad needed to spell words. Too bad.

The English language question annoys me because, like it or not, English is the language of The United States of America (unless I missed something) and I believe everyone who lives here should make it their business to learn it. My grandparents had to learn it or figure out ways around it in order to survive in this country. Most people's grandparents or great-grandparents had to do the same thing.

It only makes sense that if you want to live in a country which happens to speak a language different from yours, it is up to you to learn that language if you wish to communicate. Imagine an American going to live in Spain or Peru and expecting to work, pay bills, shop, bank, and otherwise conduct his daily life in English? The idea is laughable.

I'll say this much for the ATM -- at least it asked me in ENGLISH if I wanted to continue in English. I had quite another experience recently when I called AT&T.

Sometimes we pay our telephone bills by phone and when we do, we dial the AT&T customer service number 1-800-222-0300. The other day when my wife called that number she didn't get a person, she got a recorded menu message, of course. No surprise there, we don't ever expect to hear a real person's voice anymore -- even at the phone company. But this recorded message was different -- the recorded voice was speaking in Spanish. Spanish was the FIRST language she heard.

It works like this: first you dial the customer service number ... it rings ...then you hear their audio logo, "AT&T" followed by a little "ding." Then the next words you hear are in Spanish giving out a menu selection. After that, an English speaking voice says, "If you would prefer to continue in English, press two." The first language is SPANISH! If you want ENGLISH, then you must press two!

My wife came in to tell me about it and I couldn't believe it. Maybe she mistakenly dialed the Spanish customer service number? I tried it for myself. Yup, it's the right number all right. And yup, It's Spanish language first, all right. I wanted to put the phone down and walk outside to check my address and look at some street signs to make sure I was really living in the right country. I dialed the number again, and this time, after considerable number punching, I finally managed to get a real live operator. A Latino operator, but at least a real person. He greeted me in Spanish.

"Is there anyone there who speaks English?" I asked. "I speak English, how can I help you?" he said quickly. "Why is it when I call the customer service number I get Spanish language first?" I asked. There was a pause ... then, "How can I help you?" I repeated my question. He either didn't know how to deal with me or didn't want to deal with me, so he hung up. That's really great customer service for you, eh?

If you think this was some sort of freak occurrence, listen to what happened later that same day. My brother, his wife and two year old son had seen the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Forum last week and had such a great time that they were ready to go again. I thought it would be fun if my wife and I joined them and he said he'd get tickets. As most all traveling shows do when they cover an area as large as Southern California, the circus was moving to a new venue after a week at the Forum. They would be playing the LA Sports Arena for five days. After that, they would move to the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim for another week.

Coincidentally, on the very same day that we experienced the AT&T business, my brother called. "It seems that all performances at the Sports Arena will be bilingual," he said. "Is that okay with you?" I thought about it for a second, then figured that outside of the ringmaster's spiel, talking is not a major part of most circus acts. Okay, so we'll listen in two languages for a couple of hours -- big deal. "Go ahead and get the tickets," I told him. A little while later my brother was on the phone again. "I was taking to Ticketmaster and they told me that all the performances at the LA Sports Arena WILL NOT be bilingual." "That's great," I said. "So go ahead and get tickets for one of the English only performances." "Well, that's just it," he said sheepishly. "There won't be any. All performances at the Sports Arena will be in SPANISH ONLY!" I was sure I misheard him. "Spanish only for ALL performances for the entire 5 day run at the Sports Arena?" "Yup."

For the second time in the same day, I wanted to walk outside to check where I was living ... but I didn't. I was afraid to.

JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. You may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2001 Greg Crosby