‘Speak English’ Signs Can Stay in Philly Shop

Discussion
Mar 21, 2008

By George Anderson

Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Relations had made its decision. The owner of Geno’s Steaks doesn’t have to take down signs that read “This is America: WHEN ORDERING ‘PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH.'”

The commission in a vote of 2-1 decided that Geno’s signs did not violate Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance, according to an Associated Press report.

The dissenter on the commission, Commissioner Joseph J. Centeno, believed that the “Speak English” sign combined with another that said management reserved the right to not serve individuals, amounted to a message to non-English speakers that their business was not wanted at Geno’s.

Joe Vento, the owner of Geno’s, posted the signs in 2005 over personal concerns related to immigration reform and because of the numbers of customers coming to his store who did not speak English. Geno’s along with Pat’s King of Steaks are Philadelphia’s most well known places to buy cheesesteak.

Mr. Vento, who had threatened to take the case to court if the commission did not rule in his favor, has said that he never refused service to anyone because they could not speak English. The area surrounding Geno’s has seen a large number of Hispanics and Asians move there in recent years.

Interestingly in light of the Geno’s case, a new study by New American Dimensions contradicts the perception by some, perhaps including the owner of Geno’s, that recent immigrants are not interested in learning English.

According to the research, seven in ten Hispanics say immigrants should learn to speak English. Eighty percent of foreign-born Hispanics polled said immigrants should speak English while 60 percent of those born in America answered the same way.

“Our study demonstrates that the notion that Hispanic do not want to integrate into U.S. society is erroneous,” said David Morse, president and CEO of New American Dimensions, in a press release.

Thomas Tseng, principal and co-founder of New American Dimensions, added, “Our research shows that Hispanic immigrants would like nothing more than what previous generations of immigrants have achieved: to become American.”

The Geno’s case may also speak to another finding of New American Dimension’s poll. Fifty percent of respondents felt that “Hispanics are often treated like second-class citizens in the U.S.”

Discussion Questions: What are your thoughts on the signs posted in Geno’s? Do retail establishments and/or workers give immigrants just cause to believe they are treated as second-class citizens?

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15 Comments on "‘Speak English’ Signs Can Stay in Philly Shop"


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Theresa Fortune
Guest
Theresa Fortune
14 years 2 months ago
I find this entire discussion interesting. A couple of weeks ago, 20/20 had a segment called “What would you do?”. They did a reenactment of a restaurant that would not serve a young lady that came in to order food because she was dressed in her native Islamic dress. This segment was done to mimic what the young Islamic lady typically faced when she went to a restaurant. Some customers did not care if the restaurant served her, BUT there were many who were either turned off by what was going on or voiced concern against this!! This situation is similar. It is one thing for the restaurant to be frustrated that some of the customers can not properly “communicate” in English, but to have the sign “Speak English” with another sign that says “management reserved the right to not serve individuals,” and from what I read is selling the bumpers as well – these are discriminatory acts. I think the owner of Geno’s has some other unresolved issues that is beyond the restaurant business.… Read more »
John Stone
Guest
John Stone
14 years 2 months ago

All this uproar could only happen in America (which probably speaks well for our nation).

If I emigrated to another country which does not have English as its national language, I would not be offended if business owners expected me to transact business in the language of that country.

The sign seems to be a practical matter, in my opinion. If Geno’s trimmed it down to simply say “When ordering, please speak English,” it would accomplish its objective, and would probably not be construed as offensive, either to tourists or to immigrants.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
14 years 2 months ago
The sign is just that. A sign. It expresses a preference on the part of the store owner which he is entitled to. If he wants to turn down business from tourists and residents who may be less proficient in English, so-be-it. What is of greater concern, is the question of the treatment of immigrants as second-class-citizens. This isn’t something I can judge by reading articles about the Philadelphia incident. The sign itself does not tell me how people are being treated as people. However, there is most certainly a history in this country of having to have a “second class citizen” of the week to put at the bottom of the social ladder. As the New American Dimension study confirms, there are very few immigrants that are interested in being monolingual. Most everyone wants to learn English and have their children learn English. It is widely accepted and agreed that it is the key to economic advancement. However, there is a learning curve and there are obstacles that prevent this from being an easy,… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

If Geno wants to keep the line moving, he can install customer touch screens for do-it-yourself ordering. No language is needed, just pictures of the menu items. And how come no one remembers that his neighborhood’s “problem” used to be people who only spoke Italian?

Glenn Lindgren
Guest
Glenn Lindgren
14 years 2 months ago

Although I think that all immigrants to this country should learn English if possible, I also know that it’s a long and difficult process. Many people arrive in this country speaking little or no English. I have to believe that Geno’s owner Joe Vento’s parents and grandparents also faced the same uphill battle, a battle that’s not made any easier by ridiculous signs and unwelcoming attitudes.

Since he put up the sign, somehow the cheese steaks taste better at Pat’s.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
14 years 2 months ago

My advice to consumers is to vote with your dollar and if a sign offends you, don’t shop there. I’m sure Philly’s immigrant community has already adopted this way of thinking. The owner of this establishment should be more sensitive to his or her community and worry more about business and not proving a point!

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

I was born in South Philadelphia, not too far from Geno’s and Pat’s. Having been exposed to the Philadelphia media coverage of the incident, I believe the Geno’s signage is demeaning. It is worthy to note that Geno’s is prominently selling bumper stickers of the sign–enough said.

From now on I will go to Pat’s to get my “steak with” (steak sandwich with Cheez Whiz).

David Livingston
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

Off hand, it sounds crude and rude. However, Geno’s can do what ever they want. If they lose business, then that’s their business.

I recall in college a restaurant that only served “whites.” They did a fantastic business at the time but now they are out of business. Times changed. I can’t say if it helps or hurts Geno’s business, but the bottom line is that is their business.

W. Frank Dell II, CMC
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

A little common sense should help. If the majority of customers are Hispanic, the retailer should have people who can speak the language to assist them. This goes for any language. This does not mean every associate must speak the language.

On the other side, English is the language of the United States even if the Senators and Representative are more worried about getting re-elected than doing what is right. So far every immigration group in our history as wanted and achieved citizenship only by speaking English. Those that choose otherwise will only be successful for one generation. The customer is king in any language.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
14 years 2 months ago
I feel like this is an issue particular to the US. Speaking only about immigration, not tourism, the thing is, if I decided to move to France or Russia or Venezuela, to live for any period of time, I would have a basic expectation that I’m going to have to learn the primary language spoken there, and there’s no discussion as to what that language is. In the US we have far more sensitivity (both positive and negative) about saying that English is the primary language. That said, I would like to point out that in addition to the studies mentioned, there have also been reports that there is a decided lack of capacity for teaching immigrants English in the US. In some cases, the waiting list to get into a class is 18 months or more. So it’s hardly fair to demand English from immigrants when we as a society don’t do nearly enough to help them learn it to begin with. And here’s where I think retailers could really step up. Why doesn’t,… Read more »
Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
14 years 2 months ago

If the owner of the business is willing to risk losing non-English-speaking customers he should have the right to not have to try to learn their language. Anyone voluntarily entering a new country should have to learn their language, not the other way around.

J. Peter Deeb
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

I used to live in Philly and the cheese steak houses were frequented by tourists as well as people who live in the States. If I had to speak the native language everywhere I have traveled I would be in trouble.

The customer has the obligation to be understood–a little compassion on the vendor’s part would go a long way toward improving our image among foreigners.

Max Goldberg
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

Have you ever been to Geno’s? Everyone is treated the same. Their emphasis is to keep the line moving. Don’t get into line until you know exactly what you want. Place your order quickly. And move to the pick up window.

This is a big brouhaha over nothing. If Geno’s offended so many people, why is there always a line at lunch?

David Biernbaum
Guest
14 years 2 months ago

The signs that say “speak English” are crude, and also rude, but not impractical. The better choice for verbiage would be, “We understand only English.”

Charlie Moro
Guest
Charlie Moro
14 years 2 months ago

There seems to me to be no excuse for bad manners which category this seems to fall into for me. But I travel somewhat abroad and have yet to see the same sensitivity to this issue.

I remember being in a small village in Italy and no one speaking English…there was no sign, but at the same time, I felt no obligation that my English needed to be understood. The onus was on me to communicate to them, not vice versa.

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