A multi-lingual world

Due to increased immigration, businesses are confronted as never before with communication barriers that impede their success. Today, one in nine Americans are foreign-born, and 47 million people speak languages other than English at home. Nevada has one of the fastest growing Latino populations; almost one-third of the students in the Washoe County School District are Hispanic, and it is projected to rise.

This population growth offers smart and informed businesses the opportunity to position themselves to tap into a wealth of buying power. The Reno-Sparks Hispanic Business Report produced by University of Nevada, Reno, the Small Business Development Center and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Northern Nevada shows that the economic impact of the Hispanic population is huge. The total Hispanic expenditures in the Reno-Sparks area alone in 2002 were estimated to be $422 million, and the Hispanic purchasing power is expected to exceed 1 trillion dollars by 2010, which is an opportunity to reach new markets.

The non-native population boom means we are more likely to experience difficulty in communicating with limited-English speakers, leading to misunderstandings and general frustration. Fortunately, you can start today to improve your client and employee relationships. To overcome these challenges, communications barriers both verbal and nonverbal need to be addressed.

Communication is more than just words. Social scientists believe that 85 percent of our communication is nonverbal. Cultures have different norms and rules about nonverbal communication that include consideration of such things as degree of directness, touch, eye contact and more. Add this to limited English and we are in for one bumpy ride! Here are some common cultural differences.

* Latinos show respect to their supervisors by avoiding eye contact.

* Middle Easterners speak at a much closer distance than European-Americans.

* Asians may feel that saying "no" is a sign of disrespect and may say "yes" even if they cannot fulfill a request.

* Asians and Latinos customarily engage in small talk that others may see as inefficient.

Another obstacle is more insidious: we may assume that those who aren't fluent in English don't want to learn. This angers and frustrates us and can sabotage communication efforts. However, this assumption is simply without foundation. Each year at Truckee Meadows Community College, we teach English to about 3,000 students a year, with a lengthy waiting list to get in. The numbers are especially extraordinary when we consider that learning a second language as an adult is a difficult and long process. Most adult learners need years of study and immersion before they can become functional in a second language.

The good news is there are ways for you to overcome these challenges and reach this growing pool of potential clients and employees.

Offer English as a Second Language classes to your employees. Larger businesses may offer classes on-site and on company time while others may make special arrangements to offer evening classes at a school or facility. Small businesses may encourage students to attend classes at other institutions by offering rewards for courses completed or tuition reimbursement.

Send your managers and supervisors to specialized Spanish courses. While most classes will not make your managers fluent in Spanish, they can significantly help improve communication regarding quality, safety and accident prevention. Area organizations, including TMCC, can create customized classes specific to your business, but even attending basic Spanish courses can overcome many hurdles.

The largest impact can be felt when both efforts are combined, that is to say, offering Spanish for supervisors and English for employees. This dual-focus approach especially improves the relationships between management and limited-English employees as both groups acquire skills to create a welcoming environment.

Here are some practical tips to help communicate better with a diverse population.

* Don't assume that someone who has brown skin speaks only Spanish. Some employees may resent being misidentified if they are already fluent in English or maybe speak Tongan or Tagalog.

* Keep a sense of humor. Smile openly and try to keep frustration levels down by being empathetic and patient.

* Demonstrate what you want or expect with hand or body movements.

* Speak slowly and clearly.

* Use simple common phrases and words. Try to avoid acronyms and idiomatic expressions that cannot be translated literally.

* Learn some basic work phrases and words in the other language. Start with greetings and numbers. Carry a card with some basic workplace and vocabulary written the way it is pronounced so that you can use it during your work day.

* Use pictures, diagrams and symbols. Carry a pad of paper and pencils with you.

* Identify a bilingual employee who can help when everything else fails. Make sure to recognize the bilingual employee and pay for his or her services. Appreciate and value the effort and skills of a bilingual employee and encourage your English learners to work harder to become proficient in English.

* Have a certified interpreter translate written materials that are crucial for the workplace. Have these materials readily available.

* Just because an employee smiles and nods his head does not mean that he understands you. He just may be trying to be polite. Ask the employee to repeat what you said to make sure he understood your instructions.

If you address these issues effectively, you'll find your business will have higher retention rates, increased employee loyalty and productivity, and better customer service that will positively impact sales.

Anastasia Sefchick, a TMCC Workforce Development and Continuing Education program manager, is responsible for language and diversity training. Contact her at asefchick@tmcc.edu.


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