Opinion: Service Staff Should Know Basic English, But Customers Shouldn’t Disrespect Those Who Don’t

This piece is part of MS Speaks, a segment in which MS News reporters share their honest views on current affairs and trending topics.

Basic English Is Important In Service Industry, But Those Who Struggle Still Deserve Respect

As a first language in Singapore, people would expect communication in English to happen seamlessly, especially when dealing with service staff.

But that isn’t always the case, as one woman proved in her recent encounter with a FairPrice employee.

Woman Calls Out FairPrice Staff For Not Speaking English, Supermarket Investigating

Struggling to converse properly with the seafood section employee, she complained about her predicament to another staff member. She went as far as to criticise the fish cutter’s skills.

While there may be some grounds for her main grievance, the way the incident unfolded left a bad taste in some people’s mouths.

Sure, you can uphold service staff to a certain standard, but there’s no need to shame them for falling short.

Basic English is essential to ensuring smooth service

Whether you’re at an eatery ordering food or need help with repairs, you’d want the person providing assistance to comprehend your request.

Likewise, you’d want to understand what the service staff is saying in case there’s anything important to know or rectify.

So when a customer became frustrated that neither she nor a supermarket employee could understand each other, most of us could sympathise with her.

After all, living in a country where English is the main language, one would expect residents to at least have a basic grasp of the language.

Should they not, verbal exchanges will hit a brick wall, obstructing daily processes.

Worse still, if operations continue despite the miscommunication and things go terribly awry.

Important to be aware of social context & adapt accordingly

This is not to say that Singapore shouldn’t welcome foreign or even local job seekers who aren’t fluent in English — especially promising candidates with valuable skills.

But to live and work here, they should at least demonstrate some sociocultural awareness of the place they’re calling home.

According to the EF English Proficiency Index (EPI), Singapore is the second most English-proficient country in the world as of 2022.

Source: EF

The statistic hints at the prevalence of the use of English, such that many in the country are proficient in the language.

With this in mind, one would expect those without basic English knowledge to learn and practise to carry out most tasks and integrate. It would be to their benefit, after all.

At work or in school, it becomes the responsibility of the parties in charge to offer training to such individuals. At work especially, employers should assign roles according to employees’ suitability.

If they foresee the employee struggling to communicate, don’t place them in a particular position. If the employee shows excellent promise for such a role but lacks language ability, then train them to perform the job effectively.

It’s much like having to learn some French before going to France. Scorn at Netflix’s ‘Emily in Paris’ all you will, but at least the show taught us something useful — the importance of learning about a country’s culture to assimilate.

Source: YARN

Be kind to those who struggle

Be that as it may, we cannot assume malicious intent whenever we encounter service staff who can’t speak English.

They may be taking longer to learn or have no say in the job they were given.

In such cases, all we can do is try our best to communicate with them. This includes resorting to any means necessary, like hand gestures and translation apps.

Unlike the recent FairPrice incident, amplifying and drawing out the matter is unnecessary. Bringing negative attention towards someone will not resolve the problem at hand.

If there is a valid ground for concern, one can always raise it to the relevant authorities in private. But do so with consideration for the person in question who may be struggling.

We can’t possibly know what’s hindering someone from speaking English fluently. They may be facing personal hardships or simply find learning challenging.

Whatever the reason, they’re still human beings who deserve respect. And we should rightfully give that to them, especially for their service to the public.

Note: The views expressed within this article are the author’s own.

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