It’s time to stop wasting talent.

The following is an excerpt from the book Beyond Words, by James Archer…

At The ShareLingo Project, we see a lot of immigrants in our English/Spanish conversation classes. We like to learn more about each other, so we ask what they do, and often we get responses like:

  •        “In Mexico, I was a system’s analyst.”
  •        “In Bolivia, I was a lawyer.”
  •        “In Peru, I was a musician.”

When we hear this, we encourage the people to change their thinking, and to say, “I AM a system’s analyst. I AM a lawyer. I AM a musician.” Moving to this country doesn’t change what they are, any more than me moving to Costa Rica would make me not an engineer.

Unfortunately, being able to WORK in one’s profession is often another matter. (I mentioned this problem in the previous chapter when I spoke about the Spring Institute.) There are far too many professionals here in the U.S. (and, indeed, around the world – have you seen what is happening in Europe?) who are working in very basic jobs, rather than in their professions. I believe that this is a terrible waste of talent.

In one of our ShareLingo classes here in Denver, I met Maria, a systems analyst who came to the United States from Mexico. When Maria moved here, she got a job cleaning hotels.

One day, while making up a room, the guest at the hotel asked Maria for a pillow.  

She didn’t know what a pillow was.

But the woman just kept saying, louder and louder, pillow, Pillow, PILLOW!

The closest word Maria had in her vocabulary was “pelo” (hair). So, not knowing what else to do, she brought the guest a hair brush.  

That didn’t go well – for Maria, the guest, or the hotel.  The woman just yelled at her more.

Clearly, Maria is intelligent, but the guest, because of her frustration, made Maria feel inadequate. Maria said she cried. A lot. She wanted to help that guest. And she didn’t want to lose her job.

It gave her incentive to study hard, learn English, and get out of the hotel and back to her profession.

But for some people, that’s not possible.  Simply learning English is not enough.

After ten years living here in the United States, Blanca, a lawyer from Bolivia, still works the deli counter at Target.  Blanca’s story is a little different than Maria’s. Like Maria, Blanca has worked hard to learn more English. Her kids, all now grown and living here also, as citizens, are fluent in both English and Spanish, and Blanca was just blessed with her first granddaughter, so she couldn’t be happier in that regard.  

But she knows that it is very unlikely she will ever become a lawyer here in the U.S.. Blanca is passionate about lots of causes, but can’t use her talents to address them.

The time and expense needed for her to be able to practice law in this country are just beyond her means. I think it’s a shame she couldn’t find work in the legal field, in spite of the enormous need for trained bilingual lawyers here in our country that understand the problems and can work with the immigrant communities.

Think about it. Suppose you are a doctor, engineer, accountant, systems analyst, nurse, or teacher.  Whatever it is, you’re good at it. You’ve invested years getting your education. Now, suppose that, for some reason, you decide (or are compelled) to move to a different country. Maybe it’s to be with family, or for health reasons, or your government is corrupt — whatever the reason, you move. And when you get to your new country, where you have such high hopes, you find that due to lack of language skills, or because your credentials are not recognized, you can’t get a job within your profession.  

What would you do? Would you work in a deli? Would you clean hotels or people’s houses?

I am happy that, partly with the help of The ShareLingo Project, Maria and Blanca now speak English and are able to tell these stories.

To put another perspective on this idea, suppose your company hires a $100,000-a-year  civil engineer from Chile to do a $20,000-a-year cleaning job.  In my mind, that’s an $80,000-a-year waste of talent, not to mention lost productivity and tax revenue.

I hope you will agree that we, as a society, MUST help immigrants learn English, and ALSO give them an affordable path to work within their professions.

  • Do you have a story like Maria or Blanca?
  • Did you, or your parents, or someone you know set aside a profession when you or they came here?
  • Or, if you’re from here, have you been to another country and tried to work in a professional job?
  • Did you speak the language of that country?

Please join the discussion. Comment below, and tell us your story.

James Archer

James Archer is the founder of The ShareLingo Project - a Social Enterprise that connects English and Spanish speakers for face-to-face practice. This model breaks down both linguistic and cultural barriers for individuals, businesses, and non-profits.

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