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Speaking good English

There was a story in The Denver Post the other day about an attorney general investigation into metro area automobile dealerships taking advantage of people who don’t speak English. They went so far as to insinuate that the dealerships were crooked. Leave it to the liberal, big-city papers to put a spin on this simple story of business.The article made much ado about some of these suckers … excuse me, customers … who thought they had purchased their automobiles when, in fact, they had signed documents stating they were just leasing them (at a high interest rate, I might add). They were sold “extras” like rust proofing and high-altitude doomathrottle adjustments for outrageous prices without their knowledge.So what is the problem here? Last time I checked, this is America, isn’t it?This is simply an example of capitalism at work: The strong thrive economically by providing a product and then convincing customers they need it. In this environment, if you don’t bother to learn the language of the financially fittest, then you are voluntarily leaving your consumer demands open for interpretation and may end up paying for things you don’t want. In these cases, the used-car sales staffs used their expertise, knowledge and experience to spot an opportunity for exploiting a weakness disguised as lazy individuals who hadn’t taken the time to learn essential communication skills. Had these “victims” spent even a little time familiarizing themselves with basic legalese and read their contracts thoroughly, like the rest of us do when we purchase an automobile, house, major appliance or ski lift ticket, this windfall would not have existed.Some of these “victims” had their English-speaking grade-school children interpret the dealer contracts for them. What a wonderful opportunity for these kids to learn first-hand in the real world how valuable their educations may be someday! Kudos to the dealerships for allowing these kids to peruse real, legally binding documents. Let’s be honest, though; these cases with the auto dealerships drew a lot of attention because they involved the language that all red-blooded Americans speak – English. However, if we examine an identical situation except that a language unfamiliar to most U.S. citizens is used, we will all see that this is really just business as usual.Replace the automobile dealership with a fractional ownership sales office, substitute a gaudy three-bedroom condominium for the car and speak in terms of mathematics instead of using the queen’s English, and then you will see what I mean. During high season, dozens of these glorified timeshares are sold each week in our town. After signing all of the paperwork, most of the buyers actually believe they own something besides dead air space for a few weeks each year. Many have no idea that the association dues and fees charged for their usage of their “property” add up to more than the cost of a luxury hotel room. Some pay as much as the equivalent of $2,500 per square foot for their “property” and think they are getting a great deal! Perhaps some of these folks invited fourth-grade mathematicians to look over the documents at the closing.Do you see the similarities now? Yet who among us would suggest that the purchase money be returned to all of these fractional owners simply on the basis that they do not understand the language of math? That’s what I thought. Now we can go back and re-examine the automobile dealership cases under the illumination of a slightly brighter light. Certainly the buyers did not get what they thought they bargained for, but they got something. And let’s not forget that they signed the papers. Let time be the ultimate judge. If they are unhappy after the lease is up, well, they will be all the more careful next time and will have learned a valuable lesson in the process. Perhaps some of these people will even be motivated to learn our language and then go on to sell used cars themselves. The finer points of these cases can also be used to examine other language barrier problems. For example, let’s look at the case of a hospital cafeteria worker who can’t speak very good English. At first glance, it is arguable that the kitchen worker has earned the right to be paid for his willingness and ability to do the work. By this token you could also argue that the confused car buyer has earned the right to be treated honestly by virtue of showing up to the dealership with the monetary wherewithal to purchase an automobile. But it’s not quite that simple. Allowing these people to carry on in such a manner means that they will have escaped any and all consequence of their inability to converse in our tongue. I think reasonable Americans would agree that it’s OK to let the non-English-speaking person drive away in a leased car when they thought they were buying it. The transaction is relatively small, and they will certainly learn the pitfalls of not knowing our language as soon as the car is taken away at the end of the lease. They may even have to pay the steep excess mileage charges.But in the case of the cafeteria worker we can’t be so gracious. This involves the person’s very means to make a living. Over the course of five years working in that cafeteria, this could amount to take-home pay of as much as $100,000 or more! This person could conceivably work many years at this job and be perfectly content without any penalty whatsoever! You can argue that it is enough of a penalty that this cook is probably accepting much less than an English-speaking person would from performing the same work. But if you do, I will call you an enabler. By allowing a person to make this choice, we are basically saying it is OK to live a modest life without the chance for advancement. That is not the American way!Plus, it is very inconvenient for me.Roger Marolt has a hard time believing there are actually people in this world that can only speak one language. Endsay ouryay ommentscay otay roger@maroltllp.com


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