English-only not Always Best Course in Language Programs

By Charlotte Huff

Mar. 9, 2006

As schoolchildren around the world strive to master English in pursuit of their place in the global economy, conducting business in any other language seems almost passé.

    E-mail, teleconferencing, instant messaging–all drive the need for employees to master more than a pidgin version of English. “We do a lot of conference calls,” says Olga Corpion, senior director of human resources for Ingram Micro’s Latin American regional office. “English is the language that can really join us together, whether we are communicating with someone in Mexico or Brazil.”

    Speaking the same language can foster camaraderie and customer service and help cultivate talented Spanish-speaking employees, Corpion says. Most important, it can boost productivity. After a 12-month stint studying with Internet-based language training company GlobalEnglish, employees at Ingram Micro’s Latin American office reported saving an average of 4.5 hours per week, thanks to better English.

    But the growing Hispanic market–both as employees and customers–makes an English-only language approach far from a slam-dunk. By 2050, Hispanic residents are projected to compose nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population, compared with 12.6 percent in 2000, according to census figures. Encouraging two-way communication, with native English speakers picking up some Spanish, recognizes the business realities of that demographic shift, advocates say.

    Which approach should business take? It depends upon the company’s demographic profile, including the location of its employees, its corporate headquarters and its hard-won customers.

    Idealism shouldn’t trump a company’s most pressing business needs, says Paul Wild, director of Customized and Workplace Training, part of Portland Community College in Oregon. “Sure, it would be optimal if everyone spoke English,” says Wild, who works with companies to develop language and other training programs. “But that’s not reality. So then do you compromise things like safety based on some sort of principal?”

    Up to 12 percent of employees of grocery chain H-E-B in some regions of Texas, including Houston and along the U.S.-Mexico border, have limited English proficiency, says Marilyn Goodwin, senior manager of partner learning and development at H-E-B. Last year, the San Antonio-based company offered an English training course called Sed de Saber (Thirst for Knowledge) to 35 employees. After 12 weeks, there was a 28 percent increase in English proficiency–numbers that translate to increased confidence in the grocery store aisles, according to Goodwin. “They really feel like they can interact with customers better and interact with co-workers better,” she says.

    H-E-B officials plan to expand use of the Sed de Saber tutorial, which uses a portable computerized system to teach 500 job-related words and 340 phrases. But officials at the grocery company also are eagerly waiting for Newport Beach, California-based Retention Education, the company that sells Sed de Saber, to roll out a Spanish training version this year. Providing management a working knowledge of Spanish could improve employee training and customer service, says Ceciliamarie White, training coordinator for H-E-B’s Central Market stores. “Those managers could speak to our (Spanish-speaking) customers,” she says. “But right now, they run around and try to get a bilingual-speaking person.”

Mastering English
    Increased productivity is one of the primary reasons why companies invest in English training, says Deepak Desai, president of Brisbane, California-based GlobalEnglish. If companies primarily work in one language, “they will save a significant amount of time,” he says. “Companies are much more cohesive in the way they communicate internally.” And English, he says bluntly, has become the language of global business.

    In 2003, General Electric hired GlobalEnglish to teach its employees in China more English, in an effort to speed up their handling of e-mail. One employee reported that within a four-year period ending in 2003, the number of e-mails she received each day in English jumped from 30 to more than 200. “Even a small improvement in their ability to decipher e-mail would have a huge productivity improvement for their company,” Desai says.

    Nine months of training paid off, with GE employees reporting that they were saving more than 3.5 hours a week on average. According to a GlobalEnglish analysis of 4,147 users worldwide, nine to 10 months of online language training saves an average of 2.32 hours per week.

    The focus of GlobalEnglish is international, with 95 percent of users living outside the United States. GlobalEnglish officials won’t provide exact numbers, citing competitive reasons, but they say Hispanic and Asian users are most common, with Asian users outnumbering Spanish speakers by 19 percent. Spanish-speaking users, though, have increased 122 percent from 2002 to 2005, outpacing growth of 113 percent for Asian users.

    At the Ingram Micro’s Latin American regional office in Miami, nearly all of the employees speak Spanish, says Corpion, the office’s senior director of human resources. But communications with other offices of the global technology distributor, which has its headquarters in Santa Ana, California, are conducted in English, including e-mails and contact with the human resources office, she says.

    To date, 240 employees in the Latin American office have studied with GlobalEnglish. Nearly all of them–95 percent–felt that English was required or important for their job, according to a GlobalEnglish analysis of 58 of those employees.

“Every one of our customers has asked us to teach their managers and their front crew people, such as waiters, to speak Spanish.”
–Dave Henninger, Retention Education

    The business payoff, Corpion says, has been clear in everything from improved customer service in tech support to more participation in conference calls.

    For companies with most of their employees in the United States, demographics are still driving a need for English training. Of the nearly 47 million Americans who speak a language other than English at home, 28 million of them speak Spanish, according to U.S. Department of Labor analysis of 2000 census data. Of those, only half–14.3 million–say they can speak English very well.

    Sed de Saber results show that teaching English to Spanish speakers can reduce turnover by 83 percent and boost career opportunities, says Dave Henninger, a senior vice president with Retention Education. One-third of the participants who complete the program are promoted or are eligible for a job promotion, Henninger says. “This is a way to slow down turnover,” he says. “You give people some hope. It’s a message that ‘I have confidence in you.’ “

    At Dallas-based Brinker International, more than 750 employees are studying English through Sed de Saber, says Jose Gomez, senior director of diversity at the restaurant company, which owns the Chili’s and Romano’s Macaroni Grill chains, among others. About 30 percent of Brinker’s 110,000 employees are Hispanic, and a “substantial number” have limited English skills, Gomez says. The hope is that talented long-term employees will thrive professionally with better English. “We want them to move up in the ranks,” Gomez says. “They are going to be some of our future leaders.”

The two-way bridge
    Retention Education, which shipped its first Sed de Saber tutorial in 2005, has quickly learned that language training runs along a two-way street. “Every one of our customers has asked us to teach their managers and their front crew people, such as waiters, to speak Spanish,” Henninger says.

    “If you get the entire company speaking English, it’s better off for everybody,” Henninger says. “At the same time, you are always going to have some Spanish-speaking employees. You are going to have some recent immigrants who want to eat at Denny’s. If I were a manager, I would want to speak with them, to welcome them.”

    For some companies, it may be even more valuable to teach managers some Spanish first before focusing on their employees’ English-speaking skills, says Eli Portnoy, founder of, which links Spanish speakers with jobs. After picking up some English, an entry-level employee may find another job, Portnoy says. Plus, Spanish speakers will naturally slip back into their native language when possible, creating a cultural split with management. “But if management learns Spanish, they can also communicate and you can have less of an issue in terms of a cultural divide,” Portnoy says.

    In the end, companies decide to teach managers and employees Spanish to address immediate concerns, from customer service to safety, says Wild, the Portland training program director. Along the way there can be other payoffs, including team building and a better cultural understanding, he says. “There is almost a sense of a shared burden,” he says. “We also have found that it makes supervisors more sympathetic to what it’s like to learn a new language.”

    Goodwin, with H-E-B, is quick to stress that language education efforts at her company will never interfere with employee safety and other job-related needs. “We want people to learn English,” she says. “But we still want them to be able to do their job. And if that means giving them materials in Spanish, that’s what we’ll do.”

    Still, it’s clear from the H-E-B’s experience that employees are hungry for language help. At one Central Market, employees formed their own independent study group to build on the English they were already learning, White says. Meanwhile, the waiting list for Spanish training is growing, with a total of 20 supervisors and managers volunteering at just two stores.

    As the face of American business changes, the biggest potential risk may be ignoring the language schisms that can divide a company’s workers and undercut their long-term productivity.

Workforce Management, February 27, 2006, pp. 38-40Subscribe Now!

Charlotte Huff is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.

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