Above the Trees

Adding Un Poco Espanol

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Think adult education is just for high-school dropouts? Don’t tell that to the building contractors, emergency medical technicians and business people who take classes from Lifelong Learning.

The Greenville, S.C.based Company belongs to a growing niche of educational programs that are attracting individuals, small businesses and corporations with classes aimed at helping employees better communicate with their non English speaking client base. Instructors also make it easy for their business clients by offering the classes on site.

Lifelong Learning offers classes in Spanish, German, French and English as a second language. But it’s the beginning Spanish classes—called “Spanish on the Go”—that business owners seek out the most. The classes often are introductory and don’t necessarily promise fluency.

“Most of the time, it’s the basic survival [in Spanish] that people need,” says Jan Smith, who helps run Life­long Learning’s language programs. “It really helps us to communicate with the population that’s here.”

And the need for Spanish skills can only increase. Ac­cording to Census 2000, Hispanics now make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population. About 40 percent are settling in the West and another 30 percent in the South.

The upstate region of South Carolina has proved an attractive destination. Home­buyers include retirees and workers employed by local industry, anchored by a BMW automotive plant and a Mich­elin manufacturing facility.

This has meant good times for homebuilders, contractors and building supply companies. But it also has led to some unexpected language barriers with Hispanic immigrants, many of whom operate sought after subcontracting businesses—from landscaping and framing to masonry—needed to support the housing market.

Basic communication over projects and safety concerns had become a big issue, says Eston Rodgers, executive director of the Homebuilders Association of Greenville. So Rodgers turned to Lifelong Learning to develop classes for his members. The classes were so popular that Rodg­ers has made them an annual event.

“It is just a necessity driven class,” Rodgers says. The class fills up each time with at least 25 students, many of them suppliers and contractors from large national homebuilding chains. “It just behooves the builders here, who like the quality of work, to communicate better to get the job done.”

Tailored To Suit

Smith says lifelong learning’s on site classes are customized. “We go into a business and sort of get a feel for what they need,” Smith says. “We don’t assume we know because we might assume the wrong things.”

In one class for emergency medical services workers, Smith says workers learn to pronounce words properly, enabling them to present patients with forms in Spanish. Many of the lessons center around basic information gathering, with students taught to ask questions that elicit short, simple answers.

Smith says the most common problem for professional offices is figuring out how to communicate with a non English speaker over the phone. “You don’t have the body language. … Sometimes with the pointing or the gestures you can understand each other,” she says. Smith adds that one of the first sentences her educators teach is, “Slow down. I don’t speak a lot of Spanish.”

Smith acknowledges that, in many offices, this basic Spanish isn’t an adequate substitute for having someone bilingual on staff.

But any increase in communication is worthwhile, says Rodgers. “It’s become another tool of the trade in dealing with your business today.”

Above the Trees looks at leaders and industries outside the law. It lets you draw analogies to how you run your business, how you deal with your clients and how you face your own challenges.

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