Overcoming workplace language challenges

Aqui, horrale! Pronto! Jose, we need you to come in early manana, can you do it? Maria, room 305 needs extra towels, is there any problemo? While preparing for this article, it happened: my wife and I were being served at a Reno restaurant when, right before our eyes, "Table cinco has a spill and needs a cleanup" the good-hearted insult.

As a workplace literacy instructor, I've become attuned to subtle communication nuances. In our tailor-made TMCC workshops, offered through our Workforce Development and Continuing Education Division, we cover inter-language techniques for managers who desire better ways to work with their employees who are limited-English-proficient (LEP) speakers.

The good-hearted insult occurs when an English speaking supervisor gives orders to a work crew with one or two Spanish words thrown in usually one of the 15 or 20 words the supervisor knows. The employee grumbles under his/her breath and may even mention a pejorative or two to Spanish-speaking coworkers.

At least the supervisor is trying to speak in a way the subordinate can understand, right? Wrong! If the LEP worker has a hard time understanding English, throwing in a Spanish word or two among a string of unintelligible words causes further misunderstanding, condescension, awkwardness and creates the perception of an arrogant manager.

To gain respect from your LEP employees, only use English phrases and repeat the same request often. Listeners need this repetition to perform the translations from your language to theirs in their heads. Each time you reiterate, it gives them a chance to translate what you're saying more fully. Speak the phrases slowly as they comprehend more with the same pitch and tone, instead of progressively l-o-u-d-e-r enunciations.

Frequent comprehension checks are essential for effective communication. Say you've asked Maria to come in earlier tomorrow. An effective way to ask would be, "Maria, I need you here earlier tomorrow at 8 o'clock, OK? What time will you come tomorrow?" Too often, a supervisor will ask the first half of the question to get a smiling nod from the agreeing LEP, even though she didn't have a clue what you just requested. Nodding "Yes" to everything you say indicates eagerness to please, not necessarily an indication of comprehension on Maria's part.

With patience, practice and perseverance, you can gain the trust of your subordinates. More often than not, they will look to you for helping them improve their English skills; they know they need it. Your intonation, soft-spoken cadence and kind approach go a long way in improving your on-the-job communication. As a bonus, this magical technique could help with your teenager, "John, I need you home tonight by midnight; what time will you be home?" If he just smiles at you and answers "yes," then you're dealing with some other kind of communication nuance. Get the point?

If you want to demonstrate your knowledge of Spanish or you just want to practice what you learned in high school, coffee or lunch breaks are good opportunities to speak with your employees. A well-spoken Spanish phrase, in an attempt to demonstrate mutual respect, works so much better than barking an order across a busy workplace. Set the tone with your employee that you are trying to pick up some phrases or Spanish sayings. Give them permission to correct you. Asking a bilingual employee for help and translating to your LEP what you're trying to accomplish will go a long way in keeping your work relations pleasant.

A fun topic to discuss with your Spanish-speaking employees is "false cognates." These are words that seem to translate directly between languages but are different words entirely. My favorite false cognate is embarazado; it sounds like 'embarrassed' right? Actually, it means pregnant. Bizarre in Spanish means brave; pretty bizarre, right? The following Web sites contain comprehensive lists.



Another step to further improve communication is to learn to thank your workers for a job well done in their native language. Not just a simple "thank you," but a few meaningful phrases addressing the specific task and how it was done. The rewards are potentially great if the methods that both parties use to educate themselves are appropriate.

If you are looking for professional, comprehensive ways to improve communications among LEP workers and your entire crew, seek instruction that addresses the needs of your particular workplace. There are organizations and companies that specialize in tailoring language and cultural instruction to the specific needs of the work environment. Look for resources that can construct an industry-specific program and, more importantly, fulfill the needs of your company.

With the appropriate training, managers can learn enough language and cultural diversity tips in a one-day seminar to get them started in bridging communication gaps. Depending on your needs, programs can involve a day, a few days or a few weeks. Remember, you don't have to spend months and years of time and expense to communicate better with your LEP workers.

Successful communication is the key to good management. Now, with an ever increasing reality to connect with workers from other cultures, the need is even greater for both managers and employees to educate themselves.

Success doesn't necessarily take a great deal of time, it takes the right approach comprende? Now you've got some tips on how to turn that good hearted insult into a well meaning relationship. Bueno suerte!

Marsala is the director for TMCC's Adult Basic Education. Contact him at pmarsala@tmcc.edu or 829-9026.


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