Service lost in translation

I spent around 15 years living and working overseas and nearly half of that period was in countries where English was rarely spoken and like many people who have travelled, I have a wealth of stories about trying to make myself understood in foreign lands.

There was the time I ordered takeaway chicken pieces and got a bag stuffed full of pigeon heads and the time I offered a man sex when I thought I was trading a T-shirt. The following is a typical scenario of daily life for an expat in a non-English speaking country.

I was trying to buy loose seashells and after trapesing up and down the aisles of the shop I gave up trying to find them and asked a young shop assistant if they sold shells.


“Do you sell shells?”

“Ooooh … shaws?”

“No. Shells.

“Aaaah … sh… sh… shez?

“No. Shells. You know, seashells, From the sea.”

“Aaaaah … sh .. sh … sheys?”

“No. Seeeeee … shellllllls?”

“Ah, me no speak English … no understand.”

Shaking her head she turned away, fluttering her hand at me in what was a clear dismissal.

“Go counter!” she barked.

All part of the adventure of travelling., except I wasn’t travelling. I was at a shop in my local shopping centre on a busy Saturday morning.

It was a shop often frequented by the tween and me, the place to buy odds and ends like loose seashells needed for a school project.

It was a shop where help was always available until it changed hands.

Now, before the politically correct brigade starts labeling me intolerant let me launch into a disclaimer: When I lived overseas, most of that time was spent in non-English-speaking countries.

I dated my fair share of foreign men who spoke little English and developed strong friendships with many of the local women. I also lived in remote villages where blonde Western women were regarded as nothing more than whores, so I know too well what it’s like living as a minority in another country unable to communicate.

Therefore, I have no problem with immigrants unable to speak English settling into Australia.

Sydney, like most major cities in the world, has cultural ghettos where the national language is regarded as a second language, making a visit to the shops an exhilarating trip to another world. But when it comes to my regular shopping, I don’t want the frustration of a language barrier, nor do I want to be dismissed like a pesky foreign tourist.

I expect and want service in English. In fact, in this economic climate where jobs are scarce I expect service with a smile.

Competition among retailers is fierce, especially during this economic recession, and hard times should force them to showcase only their best employees to give the best service. A minimum requirement of one of the largest shopping malls in Australia should be that employees have a basic command of the English language.

I don’t care who owns the shop or what language they speak, their employees should cater to the majority, and at the shops down the road from me the majority happens to speak English.

Retailers are struggling, and poor service is a sure-fire way of losing business. This particular shop has certainly lost mine.


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2 Responses to Service lost in translation

  1. Nothing has the power to divide or unite like language.

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