Overcoming Language as a Professional Barrier

Madhav Ranabhat

Madhav Ranabhat

“Mayonnaise.”

Madhav Ranabhat said this word by pronouncing the latter part of the word as “ease.” The lady in front of him at Legal Sea Foods, Boston Logan International Airport, didn’t understand which sauce Ranabhat was talking about. The Nepalese native said the word again, the same way.  And again. The lady finally brightened, and said “mayonnaise,” saying “aise” the way it is said in the word “praise.”

Ranabhat’s experience working at a restaurant in 2010 reminded him that his spoken English wasn’t up to the mark. It had only been a year since he had been in the United States. He did learn the language as a compulsory subject in high school and earned his Bachelors in Education through college in Nepal where the primary spoken language was English. He knew he had to attune his ears to the American accent and language. But he still felt out-of-place, thinking that this confusion over a condiment would have never happened back home.

“In the beginning, even if I could explain, I couldn’t understand some words others would use. I used to feel bad about it,” Ranabhat said.

Ranabhat might have been one of those 2 million immigrants affected by the phenomenon of “Brain Waste.” But steadily he advanced professionally, although not in the same field as before, by overcoming what many immigrants see as their single largest obstacle in coming to America: the language barrier.

Skill Underutilization

The December 2016, Migration Policy Institute’s research, Untapped Talent: The Cost of Brain Waste Among Highly Skilled Immigrants in the United States, states that close to two million highly-skilled immigrants are stuck in low-paying jobs or are underemployed. The report calls this phenomenon “brain waste” or skill underutilization.
“If these highly skilled immigrants were working at their skill level, in the professions for which they had trained and have experience, they would earn $39.4 billion more annually,” the report said.

One of the chief barriers faced by the immigrants is language. The report says, “those who spoke English ‘not well’ or ‘not at all’ were about five times more likely to be in low-skilled jobs than those who spoke only English, after controlling for other factors.”

Migration Policy Institute is a Washington D.C. based think tank conducting research in the field of immigration patterns across the world.

Nepal to the United States

Ranabhat has been in three low-paying jobs, far from his career as a math teacher in Nepal.  His goal has been to survive and eventually reach his dream to open his business.

In 2001, Ranabhat graduated from Prithvi Narayan Campus in Pokhara, Nepal. He earned his Bachelors in Education, with specialization in math. He started teaching the subject to middle school students at Bul Bula School in Nepal.

He was brought up in a poor household in Nepal.  He lost his father when he was four.  Ranabhat was not motivated to teach but saw that as a way of earning his bread and butter. He did enjoy teaching for the time he was doing it, but he always knew that his skills in math were meant for something bigger.

So he went to Malaysia in 2008 and started working as a store clerk. The job did pay his bills but he wasn’t satisfied with it. Thinking that his education and experience must be worth something, he went back to Nepal within two years.

Upon reaching Nepal, Ranabhat received a letter to a possible new life. A life in the United States.

 Ranabhat’s Diversity Visa Status

Ranabhat had applied for the Diversity Immigrant Visa application before leaving for Malaysia in 2008. The Diversity Visa program by the US Department of State offers almost 3,500 immigrant visas to citizens of those countries that have low immigration rates to the United States.  It winners are randomly selected through a lottery system.

In 2010, Ranabhat won the lottery and got a visa. Later that year, he flew to the United States.

His family did not accompany him. The diversity visa program requires the applicant to submit the forms for the family members with his own application. That time, Ranabhat has discord in the family and did not want to take his wife with him to the United States.

He landed in Boston, but, Ranabhat felt like he did not belong. He did not understand the accent, the street language and did not know how he was going to earn his living. Eventually, he found his Nepalese community in Everett, Massachusetts, where he now lives. One of the community recommended him to work as a server at Diva, an Indian restaurant at Davis Square, Somerville. And so began Ranabhat’s struggle with language.

Day in and day out, he interacted with people who came to the restaurant to eat. From Diva, he moved to work at Dunkin Donuts. At both places, he found it difficult to talk with customers. But Ranabhat remained undeterred.

“For a year, I couldn’t understand English fluently. I couldn’t understand the tongue,” Ranabhat said.

He knew that the only way he was going to move ahead was if he understood what the other person was saying.

“For me, it was important to know how I can understand the other person, and then how I can explain something to them. That is all I wanted to learn,” he said in Hindi, as he ordered his cup of coffee at Starbucks, Assembly Row, Cambridge.

So Ranabhat came up with an idea to be able to comprehend the words said by the people he was talking to. He started observing people and listening to their conversations. He adapted the local words like “whatsup” and “how’ sit going’” by paying attention while others were talking at his workplace.

Linda Miller, associate director of academic support services for international students at Emerson College says that this technique can be very helpful in picking up the language.

“Some people are very attuned to sounds and hear them very well. So they can make these distinctions in the language. Other people have trouble differentiating the sounds. Also, in order to make the sounds, it is important to know where the tongue goes and the shape of the lips. These are points of articulation on the tongue because that is how the sound is produced. Now some people need direct instructions in that, but other people can pick it up by observations,” she said.

In 2010, Ranabhat did pick up the language and moved to an upscale restaurant, Legal Sea Foods. Once he started understanding the style of speech, he was able to do his job of serving people better.

While he kept working as a server, he did not give up his dream to do something independently. In 2014, he bought his own car and started driving with Uber. He knew this would mean that he had to work harder and longer hours. Now he wasn’t going to be just a server but he has another job that could help him reach his goal faster.

Ranabhat and his Uber ride.

Ranabhat and his Uber ride.

Driving an Uber meant that every day he interacted with multiple people. These interactions and the riders’ control over the language motivated him to go to school to learn English.

“I drive Uber and I meet people who are studying, doing something in their profession. So I thought I should get back into the field but I couldn’t put my heart into it,” he said.

Ranabhat initially felt committed to earning an equivalent US degree in mathematics but days after he got admission in Bunker Hill Community College in 2016, he had to visit Nepal for a family emergency. Upon returning, he took an English assessment test at the college.

He was told that he had to take an additional year of English classes to get his degree. Ranabhat believed that while he wanted to improve his English and start teaching math again, that was not his ultimate aim.

“I know it is never late for education if you want that to be your goal. I thought that I will start my own business, so I focused on earning money,” he said.

Even with a bachelor’s degree in education, Ranabhat faced language constraints. He was never able to fully attain his potential after coming to the United States. He does believe he has a lot to contribute. So he is not going to just quit and leave this country. He wants to keep moving back and forth from Nepal. Eventually own a business, here in the United States as well as in Nepal.

Driving an Uber meant that every day he interacted with multiple people. These interactions and the riders’ control over the language motivated him to go to school to learn English.

“I drive Uber and I meet people who are studying, doing something in their profession. So I thought I should get back into the field, but I couldn’t put my heart into it,” he said.

Ranabhat initially felt committed to earning an equivalent US degree in mathematics but days after he got admission in Bunker Hill Community College in 2016, he had to visit Nepal for a family emergency. Upon returning, he took an English assessment test at the college.

He was told that he had to take an additional year of English classes to get his degree. Ranabhat believed that while he wanted to improve his English and start teaching math again, that was not his ultimate aim.

“I know it is never late for education, if you want that to be your goal. I thought that I will start my own business, so I focused on earning money,” he said.

Even with a bachelor’s degree in education, Ranabhat faced language constraints. He was never able to fully attain his potential after coming to the United States. He does believe he has a lot of contribute. So he is not going to just quit and leave this country. He wants to keep moving back and forth from Nepal to eventually own a business, in the United States as well as in Nepal.

In the Context of Language

Linda Miller says that picking up a language is different for different personality types. “I see that extroverts tend to do better as long as they are also people who listen, people who simply talk and not engage. In order to pick up the language, it is listening and speaking and really engaging, and I think people who are willing to do that in different settings, different situations will make good progress,” she says.

Miller recognizes that in a small community, because people know each other and there is a sense of familiarity, the judgment on language and speech is less critical. However, in a busy city, people might get impatient.

“Probably most Americans think that people speak English. They make assumptions that people speak English, and if people don’t speak English, they might get frustrated and rude,” she said.

Miller recognizes that it is important for everyone to pick up the language, in spoken and written form, because it acts as a part of their personalities.

“It is a marker of where you come from, whether you are from the city or rural area, what part of the country are you from, what part of the world are you from, what’s your social class, what’s your education level. There are so many things that people read into speech patterns, that may or may not be true, but language does carry information about people and other people interpret that,” she says.

This story was written for Long-For Multimedia Storytelling, Emerson College.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s