Last week, a fatal shooting spree took place at a Montgomery County lumber yard, allegedly due to a language barrier.
It is common in today’s workplace to encounter both English speakers and non-English speakers. Often, people may work side by side and while one speaks fluent English, the other person may know very little.
Ronald Dean Davis opened fire inside a warehouse at McBride Lumber Co. in Star last Friday, killing three co-workers and critically wounding another. Deputies later found Davis inside his home in Ether with a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. According to Montgomery County Sheriff Dempsey Owens, Davis left behind a six-page handwritten note at his home indicating that he felt harassed by co-workers, many of whom speak Spanish.
“It appears by the note that he felt certain people, they’d be in a group and start laughing, and that they were laughing at him due to the language barrier,” said Owens.
Although Owens suspects Davis had paranoid fears of people out to get him, language barriers in the workplace do occur.
Richmond County’s largest employer, Perdue Farms in Rockingham, has a staff of nearly 1,200 people. According to Susie Jordan, who has been teaching English as a second language for 16 years, there are 100-130 Burmese and Thai workers at Perdue, and about the same number of Spanish speakers work there. Jordan assists non-English speakers with things like making doctor’s appointments or filing taxes.
“On occasion we do have language barriers,” said Jordan. “We don’t have enough fluent English-speaking Burmese or Thai workers but we do have Burmese-to-English and Thai-to-English dictionaries. We also have picture dictionaries, because if you don’t know what the word for ‘dog’ is, you point. A dog is a dog, it just has a different name. That’s how they become more literate. We also have regular classes in English for anyone not fluent, or for GED help.”
Because Jordan works closely with the Burmese who need help with communication, she knows it can be difficult for them to know work protocol.
“Sometimes the worker may not understand that they can take a leave of absence,” said Jordan, who recalled a young Burmese couple who was working while their toddler was in the hospital with pneumonia. Jordan went to sit with the toddler, and saw the hospital using Language Line to assist non-English speakers.
Language Line is a company that assists hospitals and corporations with translations.
“You call it up, tell them the language you need and they get a translator on the line,” said Jordan. “Perdue Farms has access to it. Other people have access. It’s a 1-800 number. Perdue has used it, but they like to have translators on the ground. So many people do not know about Language Line, even though I have known about it for years.”
Language barriers can happen the other way around. Like in Davis’ case, an English speaker may feel slighted by a non-English conversation. What should someone do who feels this way?
“The first thing you do is go to your supervisor,” said Jordan. “If someone is saying something you can’t understand, try speaking to them. People laugh and joke in every language. Just because you feel left out doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take initiative. This is still a free country. There’s no reason they should not ask questions. There’s no reason to be upset. There are rules and laws in every business so everyone can work together as a team. Open your mouth and say something before you get upset.”
“Perdue has an open-door policy,” said Julie DeYoung, spokesperson for Perdue Farms. “We do encourage all associates to talk to supervisors if they are having an issue. Most issues can be resolved by talking to a supervisor. The open-door policy gives associates the right to be heard by all levels of management, so if they feel they aren’t being heard by their supervisor, they have the right to go to the next level. That’s a policy we communicate to our associates once a year.”
For more information about Language Line visit www.languageline.com.
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at email@example.com.