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Published Wednesday, July 5, 2000, in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader

Businesses offering Spanish for workers As Hispanic population grows, need increases

By Laura Oppenheimer

Looking up from reading the flashcard in front of him, Charlie Denham grinned with a glint of recognition in his eyes.

"Yo hablo muy poco español,'' the construction company owner said as his weekly Spanish class got under way.

Denham then translated the sentence: "I speak very little Spanish.''

That one was easy. But the truth of Denham's words underscore a problem that more and more Lexington businesses are having to deal with as the area's Hispanic population grows.

According to the Lexington Hispanic Association, between 20,000 and 25,000 Hispanics live permanently in the city. Although other estimates, such as the census, are lower, nobody disputes that the number of Hispanic residents is increasing rapidly.

This growth has come with a language barrier, however. Some of these residents speak either no English or just a limited amount, which means that employees in a myriad of professions from physicians to horse farmers need a crash course in Spanish to communicate with clients and co-workers. This realization has sparked a large demand for "workplace Spanish'' and "survival Spanish'' classes tailored to the needs of employees.

"Academic programs are set up to be long-range,'' said Shelda Hale, a professional translator who teaches Denham's class at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. "These people need Spanish yesterday.''

That's certainly true of Denham, who joined the class for two reasons: His scuba diving excursions often take him to Spanish-speaking countries, and his company works with many Hispanic employees.

Bluegrass Contracting builds and repairs highways a business that can be dangerous because of powerful machinery and split-second decisions. Denham, who spends about half his time on site, said he started to worry about translation problems with some of the work crews.

"It's hard to communicate, and it's a matter of safety,'' he said. "They've usually got someone who can speak English, but by the time it gets from one person to the next, it could be too late.''

Workers in social service, health care and law enforcement fields echo Denham's concerns. Many say they consider it their responsibility to learn Spanish, rather than expecting Hispanics to master English.

Hope Center social worker Janet Monaco, a novice Spanish student, said the real accolades should go to area Hispanics who are working on their English.

"It's much easier for someone who speaks English to learn a language,'' she said. "We don't always have to use it like they do. We can fall back on English.''

As social services coordinator, Monaco works with many Hispanics who are going through an emotional or physical crisis.

"There have been times when they've been sick, and I wasn't able to understand exactly what they were saying,'' Monaco said. "That is very frustrating. They're upset anyway, and it's even harder to communicate when you've had a crisis.''

Lexington's first steps toward workplace fluency started a couple of years ago, when the first workplace Spanish courses cropped up.

Some businesses brought in translators like Hale to tailor classes to their needs. Others, such as Samaritan Hospital and the Lexington Police Department, launched their own training programs. And many encourage employees to attend Hale's classes at the Carnegie Center.

So far, participants have been enthusiastic and waiting lists have been full.

At the Hope Center, about 10 workers signed up for an eight-week session with Hale this winter. Most of them stayed on for an intermediate course taught by a Lexington Community College professor.

Monaco, who continues to practice her Spanish, said she had just one complaint about the classes: "I just wish they would have lasted longer.''

Most of her language training comes on the job now. She said she's able to get more information from Hispanic clients but still turns to her English-Spanish dictionary frequently.

At Samaritan Hospital one employee has designed her own dictionary of sorts, specializing in phrases common to the emergency room. When Dian Stirling or co-workers find themselves at a loss for words, they pull out the laminated sheets of reminders: "venga conmigo'' for "come with me,'' or "soy enfermero'' for "I am a nurse.''

"It makes them feel comfortable if you can communicate a little,'' Stirling said. "You'll get a smile.''

Just making the effort has made a big difference with patients, Stirling said. She continues to work on her Spanish a year after taking an eight-week class taught by John LaMar Cole, Samaritan's supervisor of environmental services who also happens to be a language instructor.

By 1998, Cole had become one of two Samaritan employees serving as unofficial translators, on call 24 hours a day. He realized that doctors, nurses and clerks needed to speak Spanish, too.

Since then Cole has taught five sessions geared toward health-care workers, including many from outside the hospital.

"What my courses try to prepare people for is not understanding long, involved tales of what happened in a car accident,'' Cole said. "They're meant to provide commands required to register people and take basic information.''

While the questions and warnings may be different, the need was precisely the same for police officers.

Lexington's training academy for recruits now includes 40 hours of basic Spanish, said Maj. Ronnie Bastin. A new program likely to start this fall will allow 20 police employees to take several semesters' worth of college-level Spanish as part of their workday.

Efforts like these programs show just how much Lexington is changing, but nearly all the participants said they're far from fluent, and far from meeting their goals.

"I'd like to be able to go out onto a job site, see Hispanic workers and have a conversation with them like I would any other employee,'' said Janice Eldridge of Huskisson Masonry, who is taking Hale's class. "I don't want them to feel shortchanged because I can't speak Spanish.''