HR Magazine, January 2004 - I Say Potato, You Say Patata


By By Kathryn Tyler Jan 1, 2004
HR Magazine,   January 2004Vol. 49, No. 1

In 1946, Casa Rio was the first restaurant to open on the River Walk in San Antonio. Recently, the restaurant, still owned by the same family, faced a problem other employers may recognize: Its English-speaking managers were unable to communicate with Spanish-speaking staffers regarding benefits and other issues, says Patricia Hutcherson, executive vice president and chief financial officer for Casa Rio Mexican Foods and Schilos German Deli.

Managers decided to take Spanish classes at the restaurant twice a week, between lunch and dinner, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. “Our staff was excited we were taking the time to learn their language. It created a bond between us,” Hutcherson says. “Our general manager has done well. He speaks with the staff in Spanish, and they love it. We’re hoping as we continue to learn, we will be able to conduct all of our retirement and health insurance information [seminars] in Spanish and English. The classes gave us more confidence and respect for each other.”

As international commerce becomes more common and the United States becomes home to more non-native English speakers, employers like Casa Rio increasingly need to communicate with employees and customers whose first language is not English. To give managers and employees effective training in foreign languages, employers must decide who should get training, what level of proficiency they need and which instructors best meet their needs.

Whom to Train

In the past, companies would give English as a Second Language (ESL) training to non-native English speakers who worked front-line jobs, says Martin George, director of the Language Training Center, a company in Indianapolis. Now, more English-speaking supervisors are learning Spanish. It makes more sense to train someone who has a long-term career with the company than to train employees who move on after a few years, he says.

Connie Gyenis, director of Language Plus Inc., a training company in El Paso, Texas, agrees. More upper managers are taking classes, she says. “They are concerned with everyday language, better communication with workers in the maquiladoras [factories] and to chat at business dinners.”

For some companies, language training is a matter of safety. “For health care, it is almost unthinkable that an organization would not offer these classes,” says Deborah Lance, director of professional development for Erlanger Health System in the Southeast, in Chattanooga, Tenn. “We deal with life and death situations every day, and patient safety and education is vital. We need to be able to communicate with all our patients and families, and foreign language education is one way to help us meet that need.”

George describes one client’s success: “It was a big company with about 500 Hispanic employees. They were having trouble communicating with one another over simple situations, such as ‘I’m going to be late to work because of a doctor’s appointment.’ We did a 25-week training course of Spanish [for the supervisors] and ESL [for the employees].”

The results? “They reduced turnover and safety issues,” George says. “It changed their whole corporate culture.”

What Do You Need?

How does an employer launch foreign language training? Assess your needs. “You need to know what the student wants to learn and who his target audience is,” says Gyenis.

Harriet Barnett, educational consultant to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a nonprofit organization based in Yonkers, N.Y., says, “Any employees who come in contact with people [who speak different languages] should benefit from the training. However, not all employees have to function at the same level. Some need more writing skills than others, such as secretaries. Some need more oral training.”

Ask employees what they want to say. For instance, Mirtha Jones, coordinator of Hispanic outreach for Chattanooga State Technical Community College (CSTCC) in Chattanooga, Tenn., encourages students in Spanish classes to list workplace phrases that they want to be able to say in Spanish. This helps instructors concentrate on vocabulary specific to the employees’ work.

“Our methodology is use-oriented training, not the academic approach,” says Gyenis. “What can I do in the language? Can I make that telephone call to set up a meeting? Can I chat with the client about his family? Not just conjugating verbs in a book.”

Lance made a similar decision. “We originally offered traditional Spanish classes, including verb tenses and sentence structure, but found what our workers needed was a conversational approach,” she says of Erlanger’s classes, which run seven weeks for two hours per week.

The classes were, perhaps, too popular at first. “Everyone wanted to take these classes, and we’ve got more than 4,000 employees,” Lance says. “We began by restricting enrollment to nursing and registration staff. Now, we’ve lifted that restriction and have folks from all roles taking the courses.”

Keep Expectations Realistic

Language training experts warn employers to prepare for two common problems: unrealistic expectations and lack of study time.

HR professionals may be disappointed in foreign language training because they expect too much too soon, George says.

For example, he says, “We met with a major airline yesterday. They wanted to train 20 associates in Spanish in 10 weeks. They wanted them to be able to speak proficiently behind a counter.” George spent an hour explaining to the airline that the workers could not achieve the desired proficiency that quickly.

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) in West Conshohocken, Pa., classifies languages based on how difficult they are for native English speakers to learn. The easiest to learn are the Romance and Germanic languages, such as Spanish, German and Swedish. Next are African and Eastern European languages, such as Russian. Finally, the hardest languages are Middle Eastern and Asian languages, such as Arabic, Chinese and Japanese.

Even the easier languages such as Spanish require 150 classroom hours to reach a minimal level of proficiency, according to ASTM’s Standard Guide for Use-Oriented Foreign Language Instruction. Minimal proficiency means being able to exchange greetings, get directions, shop and order food in a restaurant, for example. That level of proficiency in a difficult language, such as Chinese, requires 350 classroom hours.

Another pitfall is a lack of time to attend classes and study. At a minimum, to reach a low level of proficiency, students should plan to attend classes for an hour or two, twice a week, says George. This does not include the time students are expected to study outside class, which is at least 15 minutes a day.

“You may say, ‘Our people need this.’ But if there is a big project due and you don’t release the people to go to classes, two people show up and there are supposed to be 10, then things start to deteriorate,” says Karen Decker, president of the International Center for Language Studies Inc., in Washington, D.C. “There has to be a real commitment on the part of the company and a real interest on the part of the individual. How much time, realistically, can the employee be released to go to classes? It has to be consistent,” she says.

“You have to set definite guidelines,” adds Hutcherson. In the Casa Rio language program, anyone who missed more than two classes without an excuse was dropped from the program.

McKee Foods Corp. and Affiliates, a snack and cereal company in Collegedale, Tenn., addressed time constraints this way: “We meet during lunch. This avoided the evening hours, which would interfere with employees’ personal lives,” says Mark Newsome, SPHR, corporate HR manager. “We also provided the class on-site, so employees would not have to travel. This increased our team’s interest,” says Newsome, who provided the class for his HR staff.

Companies that offer such training outside regular work hours must determine how to compensate employees for that time.

Hiring Language Trainers

HR professionals can hire a foreign language training school or hire the instructor directly. Hiring a teacher directly usually is less expensive but also requires more research.

Casa Rio’s Hutcherson hired her own teacher by asking businesses and schools for references. But in most cases, it is easier for an HR professional to hire a language training company or a community college to coordinate the program. The company or school develops the curriculum and hires teachers.

Decker advises, “Ask the language school to provide some sample resumes of the teaching staff. It doesn’t mean that you’ll get that particular teacher, but you can get an idea of their teachers’ education and experience. If a teacher isn’t working out, it’s the school’s responsibility to make that change right away.”

A community college is a good source of instructors, says Patricia Gardner, manager of the Business and Community Development Center for CSTCC. “Community colleges are willing to customize the information,” she says. “We can bring training to [the employer’s] location, assess their specific needs and address those needs immediately.” CSTCC offers classes in Spanish for HR managers, bankers, educators, cashiers and customer service associates, law enforcement personnel and health care professionals.

Shop for small classes with face-to-face teaching. Online courses, CD-ROMs, videotapes and audiotapes can enhance learning but should not be the only forms of instruction, Barnett says.

“It’s important to have a lot of exposure to the target language and culture,” adds Decker. “We use newspapers, soap operas and tapes of news programs in the target language.” Decker also prefers small classes because students get plenty of speaking time in class.

How much does foreign language training cost? That depends on whether the instructor must travel to your site and whether you require customization. Expect to pay $60 to $200 per hour of instruction for 10 employees. Private, one-on-one instruction costs around $40 to $50 an hour. Language training is less expensive in metropolitan areas because competition is greater.

Decker recommends negotiating a long-term training relationship. “Make some kind of proposal,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be the published price.”

Kathryn Tyler, M.A., is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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