A facility with language comes easily for certain people. Some of us can do the Saturday New York Times crossword in pen in one sitting, while others say “all of the sudden” or send out press releases full of the non-word word “impactful.” But for cocktail-party cachet, few things impress people like revealing that you speak half a dozen languages. Living as we do in a superpower that lucked out on inheriting the global lingua franca, fluency in several tongues connotes erudition and a little mystery. It is also rife with misinformation.
“When people meet polyglots, they tend to say, ‘Oh, it must just come naturally for you,’ which is sort of a backhanded compliment,” says Dino Rosso, the founder of Lingo, a language tutorial that helps restaurant workers communicate with one another better. “There may be some truth to that, but I’m constantly reading and learning new things and speaking to new language speakers. It’s a lot of effort.”
A Massachusetts native, Rosso has spoken Spanish since the age of five. (He has an adopted brother who was born in El Salvador.) He took four years of Latin and two of German, two semesters of Japanese and one of Mandarin, and “basically taught myself Italian by living in Italy.” Although he minored in French, Rosso never went to class because the pace of instruction was too slow, so he got his adviser to sign off on what amounted to an independent study. (He speaks Arabic, too.) Currently a teacher at a Waldorf school in San Francisco, he’s also worked with Massachusetts to design the commonwealth’s language curricula, and he maintains a roster of private clients whom he tutors.
On paper, Rosso sounds like the kind of person who might pepper his speech with pedantic references to Ovid, but he’s very sympathetic to the monolingual struggle. Most Americans speak only one language because most Americans are taught all wrong. The human brain can handle the immersion method until the end of early childhood, at which point our brains evolve to where we have to rely on rote memorization and intensive study — much more than one period per school day. Adult-learning programs that promise to “teach you like a baby” are garbage, Rosso says. They don’t work, and the creators should know better.
And while Americans are rightly ridiculed for our monoglot ways, we’re also spoiled. Nowhere else on Earth is there a comparably sized nation with a mutually comprehensible mother tongue. Many Americans speak additional languages, of course, but an English-speaking Californian can go to Fairbanks, Bangor, or Tallahassee and be understood.
The biggest exception to this is the restaurant industry, which frequently operates along a cleavage between an English-speaking front and Spanish-speaking back. Overcoming that language barrier is important not merely for simple communication, but for a variety of other reasons: calling in sick, informing someone that a customer has a nut allergy or a religious objection to shellfish, as well as for morale and staff retention.
A Castro resident, Rosso frequently meets his private students at Flore, a neighborhood institution whose owners quickly came to lean on him as an on-call staff translator.
“Their whole staff in the back is Spanish speakers, and no one in the front-of-house speaks any Spanish,” Rosso says. “I worked as an interpreter at staff meetings so they could introduce themselves as the new owners and go over some expectations, and then I did some conflict mediation.”
These tasks gave him greater insight into the linguistic challenges restaurants face. (Apart from a stint as a dishwasher in high school, he’s never worked in one.) There are 4,500 places to eat in San Francisco, Rosso says. Everything above the mom-and-pop or family-run scale will have kitchen workers, and “99 out of 100 times, they’re going to be from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and southern Mexico.
“What I keep hearing time and again from these restaurateurs is ‘What is that doing to our bottom line and how can we solve that problem?’ ” Rosso adds. “Imagine any other organization in existence had the challenge of ‘Half our workforce can’t communicate with the other half.’ ”
For want of a nail, the war was lost. For want of the translation for “tartar sauce on the side,” the one-star Yelp review might last forever.
An opsimath is someone who learns a skill late in life. The term is obscure because such people are relatively rare. But it’s simply a given that other languages have characteristics that make learning them as an adult difficult. German and Turkish are agglutinative, meaning words combine into ever-longer words, sometimes to the terror and amusement of non-native speakers. So the U.S. Foreign Service ranks them as requiring considerably more study than, say, French.
Finnish, Hungarian, Thai, and Vietnamese are harder still. Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, and Korean comprise the second-most-difficult group, with Japanese the very hardest of all. It is unique among human languages in that it requires both one’s left and right brains, Rosso explains. That is to say, the relationship between written characters and spoken words is independent — and potential diplomats and others must master both skills at once.
Incidentally, Rosso, who has a tattoo in Arabic and went to Arabic school for 10 years, maintains that it’s “not that hard” to learn.
“I speak it every day with the guys at the corner store,” he says. “They have little nicknames for me.”
Spanish — like Italian, Swedish, Romanian, or even Afrikaans — is not excessively difficult for English speakers to learn. English, of course, is very hard. It’s riddled with irregularities, and boobytrapped against its own speakers, particularly along class lines. (It wasn’t so long ago that the SAT had questions that boiled down to “rowing is to coxswain as horseback-riding is to ____.”)
Ours is a readily absorptive language, prone to importing foreign terms and finding new degrees of nuance. The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary has about 170,000 full entries, but English probably contains more than one million words. (The British are perhaps more consciously skeptical of it than Americans are, although the “two countries separated by a common language” maxim threads that needle well.)
Further, we can’t spell it. Some late-19th-century “spelling reformer” — erroneously attributed to the playwright George Bernard Shaw — cheekily proposed writing the word fish as “ghoti” but retaining its pronunciation, citing the respective letter groupings in “enough,” “women,” and “sensation.” Meanwhile, the very concept of a spelling bee is alien in the context of a phonetic language like Spanish.
In other words, even by trying to bridge the gap between kitchen and waitstaff, it’s native Spanish speakers who must confront the more difficult task. This challenge maps onto a landscape already full of inequities.
The metaphorical divide between front- and back-of-house jobs isn’t entirely accurate. Bussers, food runners, and, to a certain extent, barbacks are all customer-facing positions. But the gulf is real, and it is formidable. Pay discrepancies widen the chasm along ethnic and often racial lines. Some restaurants have moved to rectify this by switching to a gratuity-inclusive policy that enables management to spread tips more fairly throughout the house. But that hasn’t taken off widely, and it doesn’t address underlying causes. Meanwhile, the Bay Area is a centrifuge on a high setting, expelling many low-wage earners to peripheral cities where housing may be more affordable but commutes are longer and more expensive. How does a dishwasher get to Hayward an hour after the last BART train?
It’s not fair to place the burden of fixing broken economic or immigration systems on the restaurant industry, but much of the status quo is intolerable. Regarding a cultural separation between native English speakers and native Spanish speakers as somehow natural has ripple effects that extend far beyond the range of a paging device that lets you know your table is ready. It also impairs the functioning of the restaurant itself.
After he’d worked with Flore, and later, with Ryan Scott and Ike Shehadeh, restaurateurs who’d come together at the now-defunct Sweet Inspiration Bakery, Sara Deseran of Tacolicious approached Rosso with a problem that went beyond mere interpretation.
“Every time I’m at the restaurant, I noticed myself going into the kitchen and I’m at a loss for words because I don’t speak Spanish,” Deseran tells SF Weekly. “Which is my deepest darkest shame.”
Rosso tutored her for a semester — he times his classes with the rhythm of the standard academic year — and she said she’d long wanted to offer something similar to her English-speaking staff.
Rosso did her one better, designing a six-week restaurant-Spanish crash course that’s since expanded into a full-semester class. Lingo was born.
Originally little more than a series that focused on pertinent vocabulary without “the rigmarole of verb tenses and conjugation,” it immediately took on the additional purpose of addressing the elephant in the dining room.
“It allowed them to interact with each other,” Rosso says of the course he teaches Tacolicious’ front- and back-of-house staff. “Before that, it’s like you pass each other a million times — and you can’t just say, ‘Hola’ every time. You give them permission to interact. That in and of itself is really fantastic. Even if they can’t really say much to each other yet, the fact that they’re communicating is a step in the right direction.”
In my own restaurant experience — which includes stints at the high end and the low end — something like Lingo would have been demonstrably beneficial. The summer between my junior and senior years of college, I worked at a tourist trap in New York’s West Village with the odious name of Caliente Cab. It was a horrible place, although the staff got along remarkably well. All the kitchen guys, bussers, and runners were from Puebla, Mexico, except for one hapless Argentine they tortured nonstop, and they were as jovial as they were hard-working. If one of them made a gay joke, I would grab him by the shoulders and speak as floridly as I could in Spanish: “Don’t deny me, my dear, my one true love.” And we’d all laugh.
Word-nerd that I am, I should probably be translating poetry for all the years of Spanish I took in high school and college, but I speak Spanish like a textbook that got dropped in the tub. I lack any ear for comprehension and even chitchat on simple topics leaves me totally flustered after a few conversational volleys. But my coworkers appreciated my better-than-the-average-gringo attempts and honored my requests to learn more slang and dirty jokes.
There was one busser about my age named Marcos who desperately wanted to be a server, specifically so he could earn more money to send home. He was friendly and enthusiastic, but his command of English was only so-so, and the managers were unsympathetic when he needed help fielding unusual requests. One day, he had a table of Scottish tourists and they all stared at one another in mutual non-comprehension, and that was the end of that. In a strict, bottom-line sense, demoting Marcos was arguably fair. But Caliente Cab had plenty of Spanish-speaking patrons, and I could serve them only as well as Marcos could serve the Anglos. The cosmic injustice of that has stuck with me, more than 15 years later.
Rosso’s Spanish class at the Valencia Street Tacolicious meets on Fridays at 9 a.m. That might not be the optimal hour for most bartenders, but the students — several of them from other Tacolicious locations — are engaged. Rosso nominally works from the third edition of Spanish Verb Tenses, but most of the session involves him breaking from any prescribed rubric to engage people one-on-one. If you were to explain his teaching style in the manner of a cocktail description, you might say he was playful and pun-forward, but with a backbone. The students might joke about Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers, but they take dutiful notes.
The whiteboard has the days of the week in Spanish on it, plus a diagram of regular -ar verb conjugations in the present tense. Everyone gets a handout with the standard lists of useful phrases, tailored slightly to 21st-century Northern California restaurant realities. Rosso stays serious enough to maintain forward momentum, his gravelly voice not quite drowning out the metallic sound of the radio in the kitchen. He encourages his pupils to come to class with examples of “shit that happened in the restaurant,” in order to keep things practical and not academic. For example, someone wants to know how to say, “What is this tortilla chip doing in the garbage instead of the compost?”
“Learning a language is like having a bank account,” he cautions, “on a job where you earn a dollar a day.
“It’s going to be a long time for you to have real fluid conversation with people,” he adds, emphasizing that showing empathy toward the kitchen will bear immediate results: “Whatever you give them is going to be super-welcomed.”
This is reassuring to one manager, who admits to forcing herself to overcome conflicted feelings about even attempting to speak Spanish at work.
“I feel like I’m being patronizing,” she says. “Then I walk in the kitchen and they look at me with absolute fear.”
Everyone learns to say “How are you?” in enough ways to sound like a real human being and not a robot, and that the emphasis in Spanish defaults to the third-to-last syllable. They go over question words and the three reasons for why a given letter might have an accent, with a detour through what a circumflex — or “party hat” — denotes in French, and why that’s something different altogether.
Fundamentally, this is not a grammar class. It’s an exercise in broadening cultural understanding, and it goes far beyond the intersection of Anglo-American and Latinx cultures. (The very concept of Latinx, as opposed to Latino/a, is one that Rosso dives into, in part because the gendered nature of Romance languages is a hot topic among younger generations in Mexico City and elsewhere, having grown out of the earlier “Latin@.” Rosso recommends a video on Buzzfeed.)
Managers learn that the Latin American calendar starts on Monday, not Sunday, and that most non-Americans count on their fingers starting with their thumbs — a plot point in the film Inglourious Basterds. They learn that if you’re ever stuck at a party with an Argentine, “ask them about the beef.” People share anecdotes about chefs who won’t deviate from tradition when cooking, even if that means stepping on people’s sensibilities — serving pork dumplings to an observant Muslim, say. A lively debate about etiquette and truthfulness slowly returns to the topic at hand.
Anyone who’s gotten cocky in a foreign country has quickly been humbled into feeling like an Ugly American, on par with our fellow citizens who speak only Standard American English and Louder, Slower American English. Going astray in a Cyrillic alphabet or getting lost in ideograms is understandable, but even Spanish is full of false friends and other hazards far beyond having two entirely separate words for “to be” and for “for.” The verb asistir means “to attend,” not “to assist,” and while embarazada definitely does not mean embarrassed, misusing it will cause embarrassment. (It means “pregnant.”) But letting fear of vergüenza, the actual Spanish word for embarrassment or shame, get in the way is a different matter. You don’t need to differentiate between the preterite and the imperfect tenses when asking for “no onions” during the dinner rush, when everyone’s in the weeds.
Deseran, Tacolicious’ director of marketing and branding, is a student, too. She got the restaurant to subsidize half the class and the students collectively shoulder the cost of the remainder. (This can introduce a sort of inverse tragedy-of-the-commons situation. If one person drops out, the cost of attending goes up for everybody else. But people need to have some skin in the game, she says, or else they don’t take it seriously enough.)
“It’s been hard to get Spanish-speaking people to take the English classes, because the plight of people working in the kitchen is that they have two jobs,” Deseran says. “They’re hard-working people and they don’t have a lot of time.”
The flip side has been better, she says.
“We have our HR director, some people in our finance department, chefs and managers, and we’ve had waiters and people from all parts of the restaurants,” she says. “The camaraderie — not to mention learning the language — has been really great. When I walk out of the class, the greatest thing is to walk past the kitchen and be able to speak a little Spanish. They laugh at me, but it’s great to create that connection. It’s impossible for people to realize how fast a restaurant goes. You’re just barely scraping by on a daily basis.
“You open a restaurant in San Francisco, it’s a miracle,” she adds. “You stay open, and it’s a second-level miracle.”
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly’s editor-in-chief.
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