More employers learning Spanish as Hispanic workforce expands

More employers learning Spanish as Hispanic workforce expands

By Heather Stur, of SBT

Mark Wiener is not the kind of manager who wants his employees to be intimidated by him. He wants them to feel comfortable talking to him, and he wants conversations to be more than shoptalk. He likes to know his employees — their backgrounds, families, interests.
He believes one of the ways to cultivate a congenial work atmosphere is to speak the employees’ language.
At the Four Points Sheraton Milwaukee North, which Wiener operates, several of his employees are native Spanish speakers. So he decided to enroll in a Spanish course at the Spanish Immersion Institute in Whitefish Bay so that he could communicate with his employees in a way that was most comfortable for them.
"This is a family-oriented business, and I want my employees to feel like they’re part of a family here," Wiener said. "I want them to feel comfortable, and sometimes that means speaking in their language."
A second language, primarily Spanish, has become a popular business tool, whether used to communicate with a growing number of Spanish-speaking employees or to do international business.
Coral Mateu Anderegg, a native of Madrid, Spain, and a former Spanish professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, opened the Spanish Immersion Institute about a year ago, originally to provide an immersion education program for children. She soon recognized that there were many adults interested in learning Spanish, primarily to communicate with Spanish speaking employees.
"Milwaukee has a large and growing Hispanic population, especially on the south side, and people who work in that area have come here wanting to learn Spanish so that they can communicate with their customers," Anderegg said.
Nurses, doctors and police officers are some of the professionals who have enrolled in the institute’s two-year Spanish immersion program. Courses meet twice a week and are taught in conversational Spanish from day one. Students typically are fluent by the time they complete the program, Anderegg said. Classes include a maximum of 10 students.
"People who enroll in these classes usually do not want to be in a university setting to learn a language," Anderegg said. "They are not as comfortable in larger classes, and they tend to have different objectives than college students."
For about five years, Milwaukee Area Technical College has offered Spanish courses tailored specifically for various industries, companies and organizations. The curricula are designed by an organization called Command Spanish, and MATC is a licensed registered provider.
At MATC, an individual company or organization requests a program, and MATC instructors teach the classes at the business site. Fluency is not the goal of the program, said Genell Gialdini, spokeswoman for MATC’s Office of Community and Corporate Learning. Rather, programs are designed so that employees can quickly learn basic phrases they might need in their jobs.
Mostly, students learn basic commands. For example, nurses learn phrases such as "Step on the scale," and "This may hurt a bit." Students do not learn verb conjugation, tenses or the difference between masculine and feminine nouns.
"We market it as a time-sensitive, short-term program," Gialdini said. "The companies that use it know it does not take the place of an interpreter."
Programs can be as short as six weeks, in which students meet for two hours per week and learn about two pages of phrases. Learning takes place through various repetition and memorization exercises, and classes are highly interactive, Gialdini said.
From a business perspective, speaking Spanish not only can make Spanish speaking employees feel more comfortable, it also can be an effective customer-service tool regardless of what language the customer speaks.
"Our employees often work directly with customers, and if an employee has a question that I can’t answer right away due to a language difference, that’s not good for our customers," Wiener said. "If I or other managers can communicate directly with our employees, it will make our operation more efficient, and we will provide better service to our customers."
What’s more, being in the hotel industry, Wiener’s customers come from all over the world, including the Spanish speaking regions. The ability to communicate in the customer’s language is another element of service Wiener can provide.
"Any way that we can provide better service to our customers, we will do it," Wiener said. "That is most important."

May 30, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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