The Nation's Pulse

Language and Immigration

Why don't they learn English?

By 10.23.07

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Illegal immigration is a hot topic these days in Virginia and Maryland, and a visit to a Latin-themed diner here can alter one's perception of the issue.

It's well after three on this Friday afternoon, and the narrow, dark, dingy dining room of this restaurant in a strip mall in Rockville, Maryland , is empty. The place will fill up soon enough with it usual patrons -- the quiet, blank-faced, sun-burned men from south of the border who paint Maryland's houses and pave its roads -- but for now, I'm the only would-be customer.

Notice that I said would-be customer. I'm hungry and I'm doing my best in elementary English to buy something. There's is only one problem: the Latino girl behind the counter doesn't speak English.

Encounters like this one are common in the Washington, D.C., region, and they help illustrate part of the impetus behind the current push in the area to make life uncomfortable for illegal immigrants in the hope that they would pack up and leave.

Last week, the Washington Post reported that the Board of County Supervisors in Prince William County, Virginia, voted unanimously to "cut off certain services to illegal immigrants who are homeless, elderly or addicted to drugs." Other jurisdictions in the area have adopted or are considering similar measures.

Now, the girl behind the counter could very well be in the country illegally, but her immigration status is of little concern to me. I just want to eat, but my question is: Why doesn't she learn English? I'm tempted to scream at the top of my lungs, but some invisible force ties the tongue.

The girl and I try to communicate -- she in Spanish, with vague hand gestures, I in English with clumsy hand gestures. But we're getting nowhere. And she's yawning: perhaps she's tired, or maybe she's bored by something about my speech patterns (or by my appearance).

I like one item on the menu -- chicken, it says -- but the menu, on a small board high above the counter, is written in such a spare English/Spanish style that I need help deciphering the lines.

"How is the chicken served?" I say to the girl. "I'd like something that I won't have to eat with my fingers."

No response. The girl attempts a smile. She interlocks the fingers of her hands, and plays with them, still looking at me.

"Is the chicken boneless, and can I have it served with rice or mashed potatoes?" (Rice and mashed potatoes were clearly visible through the glass in containers under the counter.)

Again, no response. The girl looks at the young man to her left, obviously hoping to be rescued. But the man, in a white apron, is doing his best to stay out of this mess. He's pretending to keep busy, trying to empty the garbage bin. He says something to the girl in Spanish.

Ignored by the young man, the girl goes around the corner, deep into the kitchen, and fetches an older man. A manager?

I pose a modified version of my first question to the older man. But he, too, doesn't speak English, or doesn't want to speak English. Instead of a verbal response, the man picks up one of the white cellophane carryout containers from a pile on the counter and shows it to me.

What is he trying to say? Frustrated, I throw up my hands. I give up, and, walking toward the door, I say, "Never mind," and disappear into the bustle of the sidewalk.

I had been an intruder in an eatery aimed principally at customers of a certain ethnic group. I'm sure the three workers, seeing me leave, were relieved. So was I. But I still needed to eat. Luckily for me, there was a Chinese restaurant next door.

"Table for one?" The girl, impeccably dressed and sticking strictly to the matter at hand, asks in accented English. At least they speak English here, I say to myself, even if it's the kind of English that requires only Yes or No answers.

No table for me, I tell the girl. She gives me a white cellophane carryout container in which I dump noodles, fried chicken, vegetables and two egg rolls, a big dinner that sets me back only $8.

I sit on the bench under a cluster of young trees at a nearby park and eat my quarry. The food is greasy, and the egg rolls are a bit too dry, but considering the circumstances, it was a bargain.

As I drove home, trying to imagine myself in the Latino girl's situation, I kept asking myself: Why don't they learn English?

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About the Author

Henry Gekonde is a writer living in New Hampshire.