Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another splendid idea from the mind of one David C. Madden

I'm back in the states this weekend for a quick four days to tie up a number of loose ends. Meanwhile, as I was passing through customs at JFK yesterday, a thought occurred to me that I'd now like to share with all and sundry. More than one European friend of mine has remarked to me how unfriendly and unwelcoming the US Customs Service is. Seeing as though a customs official is usually the first American a foreigner will meet when she arrives in the USA (and we all know how important first impressions are) and that a customs official works for the government and therefore represents the country as a whole, it wouldn't hurt for customs officials to be more friendly. I know their job can hardly be described as the most exciting in the world, but they are nevertheless really hurting our national image. Foreigners are often already fed up with the fingerprinting, questioning, and visa regulations, so why not try and be a little bit more friendly by having customs officials learn how to say "Welcome to the United States" in ten different languages.
For this to work, they wouldn't even have to memorize ten short phrases. It would work just as well if customs officials had a phonetic transcription in front of them. For example, with German, they could have "Vill kom in in dee oo ess ahh." Then, next to the transcription they could have "Use with citizens of Germany and Austria" so that way Austrians would be greeted too. Since customs officials see everyone's passport, they could easily find what to say on the sheet. Even officials who don't have a knack for languages would thus probably memorize ten phrases and their respective countries within a week. The ten languages would have to both be spoken by an overwhelming majority of citizens from a particular country (thus they couldn't use German with Swiss citizens, unless they were trained to spot German names, since 30% of Swiss people don't speak German as a mother tongue) and be commonly found among citizens at a particular crossing. Obviously this would vary somewhat according to region. At JFK, to give just one example, I would recommend the following ten languages be used (in no particular order): 1. German, 2. French, 3. Italian, 4. Portuguese, 5. Spanish, 6. Arabic, 7. Russian, 8. Chinese, 9. Japanese, 10. Korean. Those ten languages certainly account for well over half the people passing through customs.
Like the idea or have a way to make it even better? Post a comment, then. Within a week or two, I'll then sit down and write a letter to a number of different customs postings, along with a proposed table of languages, countries, and phonetic pronunciations. If I get any feedback, I'll dispatch it in this space. To be continued...

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