"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Profound Sadness at the Polling Station

I just voted today, in the runoff for Mayor of the City of Houston.

The sadness in the title is because of the sample ballot printed in Vietnamese that was taped to the wall.

I don't know if I can adequately describe the disservice this does to the Vietnamese, but I'm going to give it a shot anyway.

In one of my previous careers, I worked for a consulting engineering company here in Houston, evolving from an electrical draftsman to an electrical designer (much the same as an engineer, but sans license and seal; my work required approval by a registered engineer).

The drawings we cranked out had WORDS on them, and they were legal documents. A contractor makes his bids on what you SAY; not on what you might mean. You may specify items that are of better quality than the minimum required to meet code, but sloppy language gives the contractor leeway to make a bit more by substituting that minimum in lieu of what you intended.

It can be very mortifying to call him on that, only to have this "good ole boy" type contractor (who might look and sound right at home on the old "Dukes of Hazzard" TV show) display a PhD level of English comprehension as he pulls out your drawing and points to your words, accurately saying, "That ain't what it says right there!".

Guess who eats the cost of fixing it in that situation? Sloppy language can be very expensive.

In the mid-seventies, our company had people from China (both Chinas), India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt. During that same period, the only Hispanics who came in did so at night to empty the wastebaskets, because those who applied for technical positions did not have enough English comprehension to handle the employment application; victims of a "bilingual education" system that did its' best to make things easy for them instead of emphasizing mastery of English.

With, probably the best intentions in the world, they were ghetto-ized into menial jobs from which they would be too busy just surviving to be able to work on educating themselves to escape to something better.

This was in the mid-seventies, after the fall of Saigon and the subsequent arrival of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees to our shores.

Vietnamese children, barely off the boat, were winning spelling bees across the country, because their parents had this peculiar notion that the best way to make it, in a new country and a new culture, was to master the language.

So, remembering that, my reaction to seeing that poster is, "God O'Mighty! What are we doing?"



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