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“Cheeseburger twice, please.”

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I have just had lunch with our little group of students for this week. Asks Thomas, veteran student of 6 stays, “Do you have communication classes for English native speakers?” 

 Took me a second to respond. “Er, not at the moment, Thomas. Why?”

“Well sometimes the grammar of native speakers is not so good – and it seems sometimes they don’t want to understand,” he smiles.

Hmm – funny he should say that. I had just finished reading an article by Robert Rogers in this month’s ETP. Called “Don’t Panic”, it explores the need for what he calls, “compensation strategies for student survival in the real world.”  He starts by relating the story of a student of his who tried to order from a Macdonald’s in NYC. The student said – and I quote – “Cheeseburger two times, please.” The Macdonald’s “waitron”, or “service engineer”, or “customer liaison officer”, or whatever they are called, apparently didn’t understand. Our intrepid student changed his order to, “Cheeseburger twice, please.” Apparently the waitron etc still didn’t understand and the student left in a flummox, his confidence in shreds and without his lunch. Rogers continues by suggesting that this student had a high level of proficiency in the language and “should have been perfectly capable of the relatively simple task of ordering two cheeseburgers ….and yet he failed.”

I absolutely beg to differ, in fact, I insist. This man with his high level of proficiency most certainly DID NOT FAIL.

Now call me whatever you like, but I had NO problem in working out – in a very short time too, probably about  a nano second – that the man wanted two cheeseburgers. I ran this past Thomas, “What is the man ordering, Thomas?”

“Two cheeseburgers,” says Thomas also in a nano second.

So where’s the problem? It’s not with the student, gallantly trying to order two cheeseburgers in a language not his own, it’s not with ELF or EFL or anything else. It is with the completely intransigent and, dare I say, recalcitrant, bloody-minded and probably deeply stupid Macdonald’s waitron/service engineer/customer relations liaison moron – sorry “officer”.

And there’s Thomas’s point. Maybe there should be classes for waitrons and helpdesk people and hotel receptionists and shop assistants and anybody else who works with people who may not have English as a first language. The message would be:  Stop being irritatingly obtuse. Just THINK about it and TRY to understand. Ask the right question: “Excuse me, sir, did you want TWO cheeseburgers?”

And I have had teachers like this too – no longer in my employ, you’ll be glad to hear. One of our French students some time back told us he had “moules (phonetic spelling) that makes enormous galleries” in his garden. What an enormously vivid picture this man was painting and  I knew perfectly well what he was talking about: he was pointing to the little run of molehills in our lawn at the time. One of our teachers said, imperiously, dashing the student’s emerging assurance that he  was managing to chat away to us English speakers, “Moules? MOULES? We don’t have MOULES in our GARDENS!” I actually wanted to slap her and say, “MOLES, you fool! MOLES – stop being so embarrassingly asinine!”

Thinking about what Thomas said, maybe there is a gap in the market here – teaching native speakers to communicate with non-native speakers: teaching them how to ask for clarification, ask the right question, at least try to understand and move the conversation forward, look at the context and think about what the non-native speaker could be saying…….  Any takers?

 Nix, I;  I wouldn’t have the patience – as clearly evidenced by this post, among other things………

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12 responses »

  1. As you describe your blog: “Observing, reflecting and the occasional rant.” Err, where shall we put this one?
    Great to read, Candy, as always!

    Reply
  2. Eish David – a bit of a rant (yet again, I confess…must be the weather!), but also an observation I have been meaning to voice for a while. Reflecting? Maybe should do a bit of that over the weekend!
    Thanks again for stopping by – lovely to “see” you!
    Candy

    Reply
  3. No confession needed. Your post reminded me how some shout at foreigners to be understood. EEL – English for Empathic Purposes.

    Reply
  4. EEL!!! Perfect! Let’s start the book…..

    Reply
  5. Reading this within my igoogle made me giggle so hard— we so all have been there… but then I wanted to bookmark it so was forced to pop on over to the page and what joy reading your and David’s EEL comments.

    Can I help please? Can we Lulu it?

    xxK

    Reply
    • ‘Ullo K

      ‘Course you can help and you can Lulu it as well – as long as you tell me what that means!

      Thank you for lovely comment and for stopping by – as always.

      Cxx

      Reply
  6. Hi Candy,
    You made me smile and laugh and nod as usual!
    Bloody minded and ignorant people comes to mind!
    Happens to me here sometimes!
    Great,
    Leahn

    Reply
    • Hi Leahn

      Lovely to see you again and many thanks for the comment. Indeed, some people just have no idea how to communicate at the simplest level. I reckon the people we teach come away better equipped to do just that than most native speakers.

      Cheers
      Candy

      Reply
  7. I love the moule galleries!

    But sometimes, alas, I am left completely baffled by non-native-speakers’ English. For example, what would you make of the sign next to a pile of tins in a Chinese grocery store in Richmond BC – where English is definitely a second language:

    Gelatinous mutant coconut

    I left the store rather alarmed, and didn’t buy any.

    mx

    Reply
  8. Oh my Max!! Wo’ a larff!! I have seen quite a few such alarming descriptions of what I thought I was going to choose on a Chinese menu, but that coconut takes the biscuit, so to speak.
    I would have to then go to PlanB, which is ask aquestion that is more or less liely to give me an answer I’d find helpful….

    Hugs
    C xxx

    Reply
  9. Unbelievable that N/S can be so dense. I don’t buy fish and chips any more, though I remember the code from childhood ‘twice and a fish’ ‘three times and two lots of chips’. Maybe now the huge choice of fried rubbish available has rendered the code obsolete but I mean, come on… ‘cheeseburger two times’ ought to be transparent enough. Unless you take ‘cheeseburger’ as a verb in the imperative.

    Reply
    • I have to agree, Steve, it seems inconceivable that someone in “customer services” would be so dense. Since writing this, I have wondered if perhaps the Macdonald’s “waitron” was perhaps a non-native speaker too. Not sure. But as the article appeared in the English Teaching Professional, this was the scenario. I felt incredibly sad for the poor bloke who couldn’t get his two cheeseburgers, but maybe there is a deeper issue here that we have still to uncover and redress.

      Many thanks for stopping by and commenting – it means a lot to me.

      Candy

      Reply

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