When it comes to serving customers, communication is critical. More and more, companies are discovering that communicating with customers sometimes means getting over a language barrier. That’s where Sarah Rowan comes in.
She started Salud Spanish, a company that teaches Spanish classes and translation.
One of its specialties is classes geared toward specific industry professionals. Rowan, with help from seven other Salud teachers, developed Spanish classes for health care workers, lawyers, counselors, educators, banks and farmers — people who routinely come in contact with the public, or tend to have a high number of Spanish-speakers working in their industry.
In her general comprehensive classes, fluency in Spanish is the goal. In the professional classes, on the other had, teachers just go over basic “survival” Spanish – teams memorize phrases and questions that will probably come up during the course of their job.
“We don’t really talk about grammar in the professional courses,” Rowan said. “We talk about this usable language, and they do a lot of memorizing.”
For health care classes, that can mean learning how to ask patients things like “Does it hurt?” or “Where does it hurt?”
Teachers and others who work in education learn to communicate very basic ideas to parents.
“If they know a little bit of Spanish it creates an environment of trust,” Rowan said, “definitely makes people smile. That’s half the battle.”
Her classes can also help employees and managers work together as a team. In her classes for people in the farming industry, she takes the English speakers and teaches them some Spanish, and the Spanish speakers and teaches them some English, with the hope that they can communicate somewhere in the middle.
The industry courses weren’t her idea — organizations had been contacting her, desperate for some beginning Spanish classes for their employees.
“They were calling, saying ‘we don’t have time to do a comprehensive Spanish program. We need 20 hours of Spanish and we’ll tell you want we need to say’,” Rowan said. “So, we started to put together these workshops for that reason.”
Some basic Spanish among professionals who work with the public can be critical. While places like banks usually hire one teller who is bilingual, that’s not enough, Rowan said. They get easily overwhelmed if more than one Spanish-speaker comes in at a time.
“No one could greet the customers when they come in, and that was a big issue,” Rowan said.
Banking professionals told her what the problem was, and what they needed to learn to say in Spanish.
“[They] were like, ‘We can’t even be nice them, we want to at least say hey, welcome, can you wait a second?’” she said.
According to the U.S. Census, half a million people in Washington aren’t fluent in English. Just under half of those people primarily speak Spanish. That number has gone up since the previous census in 2000.
“There’s definitely more [Spanish-speaking] people living here in their community all year round,” Rowan said. “The need for Spanish, it’s really visible in any area, in every field. Store owners now are wanting to learn Spanish.”
Rowan never thought Spanish would turn into her career.
She first learned the language when she visited Spain for the first time when she was 17. She has gone back many times since then.
“I like their lifestyle,” she said. “I love that they take a couple hours for lunch, that’s their main meal, the 2 o’clock meal. The entire world shuts down at 2 o’clock. You can’t go buy anything. I love that distinctive time that they dedicate towards talking and eating together.”
As a young adult, she spent most of her time working and studying in Spanish-speaking countries. She spent a lot of time in Costa Rica, working at a banana plantation.
“Costa Rica is such a diverse country,” she said. “It’s the size of West Virginia, but it has so many types of rain forest and jungles.”
She started teaching Spanish in her 20s, to small groups and individuals.
“The more I started teaching and translating, the more I realized, you know I kind of like doing this,” she said.
Before she started Salud, she had another language school where she lived in Kentucky.
She started Salud when she moved back to the Northwest nine years ago. In addition to running Salud, she teaches Spanish at Western Washington University.
Since she’s been studying Spanish, she’s seen a big shift in who is learning new languages.
When she first started teaching languages, the only people learning them were those preparing to go traveling.
“The biggest change I have seen is why people are studying Spanish, going from only travel or maybe business,” she said. “But it was really to communicate with the outside world, and now the outside world is in our communities.”