Bridging the language barrier
Understanding and respecting cultural differences can help create a productive and harmonious working environment, and effective jobsite communication can help to better that environment in many ways. Community language classes and Spanish-to-English/English-to-Spanish dictionaries are widely available to most people, but they're not necessarily the most effective paths to learning English skills that are useful on a construction site. Construction-specific Spanish-language resources are available through many concrete and construction industry associations, including manuals, safety guides, training DVDs, and vocabulary and phrase books. There are companies, such as Zerah Services and 2nd Language Success, that offer construction-specific language courses, translation assistance and other cross-cultural communication services. Additionally, there are several language products geared specifically to the construction industry that teach users vocabulary commonly used on the work site.
When an English speaker and a non-English speaker have something to say to one another on the jobsite, there isn't always time to run back to the office for a translation dictionary. For times when communication needs are immediate, 2nd Language Success has developed a series of portable, laminated vocabulary cards fine-tuned to both the concrete industry and the construction industry in general.
Deby Jones, founder of 2nd Language Success, explains that the "Spanish In-a-Pinch" and "English In-a-Pinch" products use a unique approach to help people communicate even if they have no experience in speaking a foreign language. "The Spanish In-a-Pinch cards are like a cheat sheet for learning Spanish," she says. "They offer the user English words to best pronounce the Spanish."
For example, an English speaker using a Spanish In-a-Pinch card will see the phrase "My name is ... " followed by the Spanish translation "Me llamo ... " and the English-based phonetic pronunciation "may YAH-moe ... ."
"The cards get people communicating on the jobsite, and they break down the No. 1 factor people must overcome when speaking a new language, and that's fear," Jones says. "You might not be speaking Spanish perfectly, but people can understand what you're saying. When a crew of workers receives its English In-a-Pinch cards, they can start speaking to each other immediately. This creates a work environment that's safer and more efficient, and all-around better."
Jones says the cards can help a business owner determine which members of his or her crew might be worth investing in for advanced language courses. "You can throw a lot of money into language programs and classes, but if workers aren't interested in learning, you're throwing a lot of money away. If you give crew members these cards, you will see who uses them and is excited about learning and might benefit from language classes or other programs," she says.
Spanish In-a-Pinch and English In-a-Pinch cards are available in a wide range of topics, including safety, human resources, employment application, payroll and speaking to an employee's family on the phone.
Another language product geared toward helping construction owners facilitate communication on the work site is Sed de Saber Construction Edition, a self-paced, take-home language program that teaches Spanish speakers English language skills specific to construction.
"While some employers do offer ELS (English as a second language) courses for their employees, they often fall short because the content is generic, and scheduling makes it almost impossible for workers to attend and meet the demands of the job and family," says Steven Kramer, vice president of the residential construction academy of the Home Builders Institute, an arm of the National Association of Home Builders. "The technology and portability of Sed de Saber overcomes these challenges to learning by enabling the worker to study an industry-specific curriculum off-the-clock, at his or her own pace.
"We're excited about what this will mean for the overall construction industry, especially from a safety standpoint," Kramer adds. "There are OSHA statistics that say about 25 percent of construction site accidents occur because of a language barrier, and we're really hoping to bridge that gap."
In addition to construction industry specific language information, Sed de Saber also teaches users helpful non-jobsite related skills such as introducing yourself or opening a bank account. A similar program has been in existence for the hospitality industry since 2005, and Kramer says it has shown some promising results.
"In the hospitality industry, it has been proven that employees you are willing to invest in with language skills are willing to stick with the company, and there's evidence of reduction in turnover for employees who go through this program," he says. Kramer adds that users showed a 40 percent increase in English retention in a test pilot they ran with the Sed de Saber Construction Edition before it hit the market.