Linguistically Speaking in Yosemite National Park, USA, part 1

By Merrily McCarthy

This series discusses linguistic experience in one specific work example, The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park in California, USA.  A National Historic Building built in 1927, The Ahwahnee, whose halls echo the sounds of many languages has for 86 years invited the voices and languages of many global cultures to gather within its stone walls.  Over the next month or so I will blog about ethnographic observations from there in a series of posts as I explore linguistic interactions in a real live working environment.


My research is in “a natural everyday communication level” in the selected environment which is a national park.  This method is being used not to demean nor embarrass any anonymous participants but to expand on the possibilities for work environment improvements between management and employees. Hopefully this will also awaken an awareness of the importance of a general work community interaction, and “co-lingual” influences upon the population.


This series is solely about linguistic communication in a work environment and is not intended to focus on any business operations as such, other than in regard to the way language is used among fellow humans in the work setting.  These observations are solely my own.


The general hotel staff recruits employees from multi-cultural and diverse linguistic backgrounds.  This combination of personalities from diverse cultures brings exciting, challenging and rewarding language experiences.  This is observed in particular, in the housekeeping department where there are a mix of workers speaking English and Spanish, as well as other languages.  As is common in such situations, language choice reflects different dimensions of power between management and workers, convenience, and sometimes just the practical needs for task completion.


The housekeeping department defines its ability to function efficiently by completing and accomplishing daily tasks in a timely manner.  This operational expectation requires comprehensive communications between individual staff members, in particular managers and employees.  Employees are further diversified into assigned work function titles, units or activities, such as rooms keepers, inspectors and housekeeping porters.  Each division has a function and a language of communication to facilitate completion of tasks.


These general duties and tasks are replete with the language of their success or barriers to the fulfillment of their achievements.  In order for a place of work to operate smoothly there is a requirement of a common language or means to communicate.  The result is a war of word choices or language considerations that opens doors for creativity, teaching and learning.  Each person has a responsibility to decide the best word choice to express the intended accurate message in an intelligible sound sequence.


Each specific work environment brings its own identifying language.   The housekeeping department maintains it’s own unique multi-cultural language experience.  In the United States it is often assumed that English is the primary language for communicating daily business operation functions.  But many English speakers may be surprised to discover a primary language used to communicate is often Spanish.  This lingua dominance necessitates the need to always have on a work site someone who is or can translate languages.  This position tends to be absorbed by any manager who is bi-lingual in Spanish or English, the two most current dominant languages, with Asian languages closing the gap.


Housekeeping departments in general, globally, as well as the United States, have a tendency to employ a majority of peoples from immigrant cultures, reflecting the numbers of migrating Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic immigrants seeking entry-level employment opportunities in places such as the Ahwahnee Hotel.  Languages become a tossed salad of sounds, definitions and interpretations, creating another form of cognitive expansion.  Thus language provides a complex dimension of on the job training in linguistic experiences thus influencing human development and human understanding.


Housekeeping is relatively simple in its operational tasks and daily expectations, yet coworkers have to have a way to express themselves and be understood.  Occasionally other methods of communication are brought out of the basket, such as non-verbal signs or symbols.  In housekeeping coworkers often communicate by visual demonstrations of task operations, and real time symbols of object orientation.  For example, showing a newcomer how to scrub a tile floor, or flip a bed, or fold origami toilet paper tabs.


Evolving from these rudiments of demonstrating tasks, and simultaneously ascribing word specific attributes or definitions, a comprehensive understanding arises.  They talk.  For example a housekeeper may encounter back pain from pushing a heavy cart or repetitively lifting heavy sheets and bedspreads, or suffer from a lack of energy from low blood sugar, or perhaps he or she has too many rooms to clean, or perhaps a family member is in the hospital or the car she uses just broke down; all of these subjects are real and add another level of complexity which occurs when words of different languages are shared or exchanged that represent the same beliefs, functions or activities of any other housekeeper.  Someone has to understand the words used to express the momentary ADL’s.  For example, a housekeeper who has to bust out 19 rooms, some departs, and some stayovers, who works all day and then gets in an end of the day time bind because some of her departs did not leave in a timely manner for her efficiency rate to rise, has to be able to explain coherently her need for help or reason for getting behind or speak about her immediate situation with understanding and not a hysterical garble of angry Spanish or it could be angry agitated English…to a manager who is only interested in “the bottom line.”  That would be the business end; not language communication.  This is where the business makes it or fails.  It is here the levelheaded person wins.  It is here where calm communication leads the success of any department.


In a friendly open work environment co-workers trade and share their unique cognitive sets of understanding and integrate this with their economic or cultural environments.  For example a housekeeper is experiencing back pains and shoulder pains.  The housekeeper may not mention the physical pain because then she or he might have to see a doctor and the medical situation merely complicates her life because she or he has to continue working because a family is supported by the work labor.  Many other housekeepers may feel the same pains and in a general sense the housekeeper may say, “Mucho trabajo y pequeno dinero.”  Whether you speak English or Spanish the meaning is relatively clear and laughter ensues with the workers continuing.  The shared communication allows peoples from different places of language to cope and adapt and realize that we are altogether on this planet and can be of value and worth to one another.


Once workers in a set stable workplace establish a sound and a shared definition for an object and begin the process of sharing and exchanging words, doors of progress open and human development and the enlightenment of learning move forward.  Spanish speakers are delighted when English speakers attempt to roll the R’s.  Most English speakers are not accustomed to this oral process, and when it is done incorrectly Spanish speakers are vastly entertained.  On the occasion of a successful tongue trill the Spanish speakers will hear and their faces will light up and they get excited.  There are certain words like Arriba…meaning hurry, that work well for this game, since housekeepers are always in a hustle.  Some housekeepers do not appreciate this word in any language.  Usually it is work related.  They are working as fast as they can and do not wish to be brought out of their siesta.


It is believable that multi lingual experiences provide opportunities for progressive human development easing tensions and stress among co working individuals.  We are human who learn not only by sight, but also and in particular by the sounds we share and the objects or emotions we assign to cognitive variables such as hunger. Housekeepers can create a stampede around noon, or lunchtime by mentioning on the house radio, “voy a comidas,” or code switching sweetly, “I am going to lunchee now.”  After pressing forward with constant motion for 4 hours, sitting down and taking a bit of food is the sole existing comforting thought.


One of the most positive aspects of a simple housekeeping department is its encouragement of sharing language in order to explain a work related task.  Cleaning away dirt or trash may be obvious to the needs of good health and sanitation, however, knowing what this process sounds like in words and means by definition or emotional context in another language is the difference betweens the success or failure of people and businesses to operate successfully.  Then the word soucio came to my ears.  The word means dirty and suddenly I knew what the Spanish speakers were talking about.  Clarity of vocabulary was shared.


Linguistic anthropologists know all of our words contain meaning, definition and emotion specific to the person expressing it.


Perhaps the best way to aid communication is through demonstration or the showing, or the actions of an idea or objectification of a function you wish to communicate.  For example a simple process of bed making can be verbally explained, however if you do not know the proper words to explain the process in order for your words of sound to be understood, how can you describe the task you need accomplished?  Showing, not telling, demonstrating by action is the best way to describe the task.  At the Ahwahnee this leads to interesting linguistic phenomena like a shoulder tap from an excited housekeeper.  Then you hear “aqui, aqui, aqui” followed by a flurry of activity and a come here to me hand sign, followed by another burst of movement such as a simple task of dusting a table.  All this is accompanied by a swing of hands through the air around the room to signify, “dust the entire room!.”  Ok. Got it.  Thanks for the work.


Yes, physical movement is another form of descriptive communication; movement and perhaps on some level that movement is associated with a thought and thoughts being words in a language.  For a person in a new and foreign environment this becomes a communication of expression preceding the formulation of words and complex language structures.  Inclusive within a housekeeping department, with simple tasks it is easier to see first hand and experience learning and observe building a new language for communication experience across multi-cultural boundaries.


By the same token, it is the reason that barriers to communication exist.  English is the dominant language for management and it always seems this privilege means management feels it does not need to learn more than a rudimentary level of any other language.  English speakers in a place like the Ahwahnee are as  stubborn as any other workplace  in allowing open-borders to restrict their communicative spheres, leaving the impression that they are unable to accept a work environment multi-lingual experience.  In other words they do not want to learn more than one language.  At least this is observed as a trait of language dominance superiority for some.


Spanish speakers at the Ahwahnee opened doors of opportunities because they learned English and some other languages.  In the process they expanded their understanding of the world and the workplace.  They are not afraid to talk in more than one lingua.  They implicitly realize the advantage of being bi-lingual or multi-lingual, as opposed to the non-expansive mono-lingual ceiling the English speakers try to impose, even though it is generally accepted that America is  primarily an English speaking country.


If this war of words at the Ahwahnee is noticeable in the simple structure of a housekeeping department, then it has become the great American language standoff, with Spanish speakers grouping to speak rapid-fire conversations over any variety of subjects having to do with work or not.  Irrespective of the subject, monolingual English speakers are left in a communication void, wondering what the newborn conspiracy is all about, or wondering if there is one.


In response the otherwise privileged monolingual English speaking managers use task orientation orders to maintain control of the all-knowing bi-lingual labor force.  An example is phrasing and comments such as the following that invite no response from those persons spoken to:  “Do what I tell you.” “Do not question me!”  “End of discussion.”  “Cover your assets.” “ Listen up everyone-I want this done and I want it done now.”  “Don’t question me!” “Don’t ask me, I am not an HP!”  “I am not doing it! It is not in my job description.” “This room was not done! Blah, Blah, Blah.” “He is back and you know what that means.” “Be mean? I am forced to, don’t want to be mean!” “Pisses me off!”  “Come down to my office now.” “Don’t question me, I am the boss!” Marching orders, and English are pretty much understood by English people.  However, to what extent do speakers of other languages understand these types of comments and lingua quips?  What is really being communicated that is effective?


This is when and where the communication breaks down and management can become tense and potentially abusive.  Mono-lingual management suddenly feels threatened by a more knowledgeable bi-lingual labor force and suddenly feels compelled to exert more to resist what they believe is an ill conceived uprising.  The difference is in language.  English is perceived as a cold clinical language.  Whereas Spanish is a romance language filled with softness and emotions.


Due to a lack of understanding managers verbalize their feelings of diminishing control and demand, “Listen to me!”  Or the old English child development quandary, “you do not listen!”  When management lowers itself and its standards of professionalism to this level of frustration, it is necessary to re-evaluate management strategy and upgrade their linguistic speaking and thinking ability.


Merrily McCarthy works at the Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite National Park in California, USA.  She is a recent graduate of Fresno State in Anthropology.