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Multilingualism Is a Necessity In Many Jobs

By Rita Zeidner
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page F01

You won't find workers at Ram Javia's Dunkin' Donuts in Westminster, Md., chatting behind the counter in their mother tongue, Gujarati.

Gujarati is the dominant language of Gujarat state, on India's west coast, and it's the language Mahatma Gandhi used to communicate most of his doctrines on nonviolence. It's also the language most of the workers at the Carroll County doughnut shop, 60 miles north of the District, feel most comfortable speaking.

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But Javia has asked his staff to speak only English when customers are around.

"If you speak in your native language in front of visitors, it's very rude," said Javia, himself an immigrant from India, who bought the Westminster franchise in 1997.

Officials at Marriott International Inc., the Bethesda-based hotel chain, agree.

"We try to encourage workers to speak in English," said Luis Ortuna, human resources manager at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, which, like most hotels, relies almost entirely on workers born outside the United States for housekeeping and other entry-level jobs. "Otherwise [guests] might think workers are talking about them."

A draconian policy? Maybe, especially when imposed on workers who speak little or no English at the time they are brought on board.

And yet a growing number of employers say this kind of crackdown is vital if they are going to stay in business.

"We believe the type of worker we're hiring is very hard-working," Javia said. "But we need to upgrade their interpersonal skills."

Addressing a Concern

In May, a McDonald's employee struggling with English was the catalyst for one of Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's notorious public outbursts. The former mayor and state governor complained the worker had difficulty taking his order. After the incident, he vowed, publicly, not to return to the restaurant.

"I don't want to adjust to another language," Schaefer grumbled during a meeting of the state Board of Public Works, according to a transcript of the meeting published by the Baltimore Sun. "This is the United States. I think they ought to adjust to us."

It's that kind of negative publicity that prompted the Chicago-based National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, the educational arm of the restaurant lobbying group, to launch a program for restaurant owners to address what is widely seen as the industry's Achilles' heel.

It's not just an interest in appeasing fussy customers that's driving the initiative, said Mary Adolf, NRAEF's president.

"We need to assure that these workers understand the procedures that are important for food safety and food consistency," she said.

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