MTA investigating sign that apparently slights riders without English skills

This was no welcome sign.

A transit worker along the No. 7 line apparently made a public dig against straphangers without English skills recently, and the bizarre incident has left MTA officials livid, saying it falls contrary to efforts to increase public transit’s accessibility.

“It’s very upsetting to me,” John Hoban, general line manager of the No. 7 train, said yesterday. “It is the antithesis of what the No. 7 line is about.”

Last week, a transit employee at the Hunters Point Avenue station scrawled “English spoken here” on the token booth’s dry erase board. The sign shocked some riders in the multi-ethnic enclave.

“That’s very rude,” said Wesley Fruge, 26, a Long Island City straphanger who snapped a photo of the sign on Friday. “It’s something that shouldn’t have been there.”

As an agency rule, token booth boards can only display service updates or MetroCard information. Officials yesterday were still investigating who was responsible for the writing and are expected to question two station agents today.

Riders on the No. 7 line are some of the most diverse in the city, with the train often called the “international express.” But public transit can bewilder those without solid English skills, said Andrew Friedman of Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that runs ESL classes.

“There’s tons of immigrants who are afraid to get on the subway because they feel confused,” Friedman said.

Station agents receive instruction in customer service and how to accommodate riders with disabilities, but transit does not provide language classes or cultural-sensitivity training. The MTA also does not assign station agents based on language skills, as clerks chose their jobs based on seniority.

Still, those who speak a particular language often select stations serving their community, union leaders said. Others learn a few key phrases to help them on the job.

“You see a big smile on their faces when they hear some common words,” said John Mooney, a station agent who learned Russian phrases while working in Brighton Beach.

The MTA translates all service advisory signs into Spanish, along with Chinese, Korean and Russian in particular neighborhoods. It has also recently:

- Allowed straphangers to fill out surveys in different languages.

- Deployed translators to stations with many immigrants during service interruptions or public events, with interpreters speaking seven languages stationed at the U.S. Open last month.

- Started designing cards listing key phrases in different languages for station personnel confronting emergencies.

“We’re not there yet,” said Hoban, who is learning Spanish to speak with his riders. “But it’s essential I know what they are thinking and how I can serve them better.”

hhaddon@am-ny.com

Languages in NYC by the numbers
 
170: Estimated number of languages spoken in the city
48: Percent of New Yorkers who speak another language at home
23: Percent who don't feel they speak English well
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Tags: mta , transit , stations

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