Businesses bridge language gap with custom Spanish skills
Arizona Republic
November 27, 2007

(Phoenix, AZ) Author: Russ Wiles, The Arizona Republic

Estimated printed pages: 4
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These days, many businessmen and women work with customers, suppliers or assistants who speak another language. Communication is frequently difficult, if not impossible. So it may come as no surprise that more employers -- and many of their English-speaking workers -- are showing an interest in learning Spanish customized to specific jobs.
The trend isn't without controversy, as English-only proponents say it slows the assimilation of immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere. Still others say teaching at least rudimentary workplace-Spanish skills is a necessity in some industries and reflects the reality that many immigrants -- including some of those here legally -- don't have a good grasp of English.

"Let's face it: There are obvious demographic changes happening," said Bonnie Wheeler-Nelson, a retired real-estate broker in Surprise who owns rental properties and sits on the board of a homeowners association.

"It's wise to know what's going on."

Wheeler-Nelson and a dozen other Arizonans participated in a recent one-day "survival Spanish" session geared to apartment managers and others in real estate.

The students who attended the beginning-Spanish class said an improved grasp of the language would help them do their jobs better.

"I've had situations where workers sprayed the wrong texture on the ceiling or where they didn't have the right type of safety equipment on," said Wesley Lawrence, a project coordinator for a condominium conversion in Chandler.

Christina Quarnstrom, manager of a west Phoenix apartment building, said that better language skills would help her communicate with some of her tenants, most of whom are Latino.

"Sometimes, (a tenant) will hunt down a bilingual maintenance guy or bring in little kids to translate, but often they'll say it wrong," she said.

Ironically, Quarnstrom's parents speak Spanish but communicated with her in English when she was growing up, hence her need to get reacquainted with the language.

"Now I have to know Spanish," she said. "It's more or less mandatory."

Customized training

Community colleges have taken a lead in teaching Spanish tailored to the workplace. For example, Phoenix College offers classes for workers in more than a dozen fields, including nursing, banking, firefighting and corrections.

The college has added classes in recent years and has shifted its focus to oral communication, faster results and more specific applications.

"We used to have a general customer-service course, but now we offer Spanish for auto-insurance representatives, tax preparers and apartment managers," said Anna Lopez, director of the school's custom training and education program.

Bashas' Supermarkets, State Farm Insurance, Gilbert and BlueCross BlueShield are among the mix of local employers that have sent students into the program, which is built around a minimum of 16 classroom hours over six weeks.

Myelita Melton, head of SpeakEasy Communications, journeyed here from North Carolina to teach the one-day survival Spanish course to the apartment-industry employees.

"There's every reason for someone involved in business to acquire some Spanish survival skills, and learning it doesn't mean you're helping Spanish overtake English," she told her students, all associated with the Arizona Multihousing Association.

"Rather, it's an opportunity to reach out and help people, to treat your Hispanic residents with dignity and respect."

Cultural differences

Roughly 32 million people in the U.S. age 5 or older speak Spanish at home, according to Census Bureau figures, and nearly half of those people say they don't speak English well.

Melton considers English a harder language to learn than Spanish. For example, she said English uses 27 vowel sounds, many of them silent, compared with five vowel sounds, none silent, in Spanish.

Melton focuses on teaching workplace-relevant words and phrases first. She tells students to practice regularly and not obsess about accents, full verb conjugations and other details.

"Say what you know -- don't worry about framing each sentence perfectly," she said.

In her classes, Melton covers cultural issues that can have a bearing on business and customer interaction. One example is the Latino custom of using four personal names -- first, middle and last names from both the maternal and paternal sides. Another is the tendency to write dates differently than Americans, proceeding in a day/month/year order, not month/day/year.

Those and other cultural subtleties can trigger communication breakdowns.

"Writing someone's birthday as 5/7 isn't the same as writing it 7/5," Melton said. "That's how you could order the wrong credit report on someone."

Melton acknowledges workplace-Spanish instruction is somewhat controversial, and she occasionally has students with uncooperative attitudes, especially when employers are paying for the instruction.

"But I also hear from students that what they learned helped save a life," she said. "Those stories inspire me to continue, no matter what."


Tips for learning workplace Spanish

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] Learn emergency phrases first, along with the words

you use most often.

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] Work on your accent, but don't worry about it.

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] Say what you know, even if it's not a complete


[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] Make notes, carry cheat sheets and practice every day.

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] Laugh at your mistakes, but don't laugh at others.

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] Have fun, proceed at your own speed. Don't give up.


Language barriers

Arizona has one of the highest concentrations of people who

don't speak English well.

Here's how Arizona ranks compared with other states:

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] 1. California, 20.2 percent.

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] 2. Texas, 14.8 percent.

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] 3. New York, 12.7 percent.

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] 4. Nevada, 12.1 percent.

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] 5. Arizona, 11.8 percent.

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] U.S. average, 8.6 percent.

[UTF8]E296A0[/UTF8] 51.West Virginia, 0.6 percent.

U.S. Census Bureau

Reach the reporter at or 602-444-8616.