How to learn a language for business

Communication is key in every industry. So what do you do if your customers don't speak English? Don't worry: two...

We all have communication breakdowns. Some days it’s just hard to get your point across or understand what other people are trying to say.

Now imagine that you speak another language.

Though English is the most widely spoken language in the country, there are also an estimated 28 million Spanish speakers and an estimated 2 million people who use American Sign Language (ASL) – making them the second and third most-common languages.

If you can’t communicate with these populations, chances are you’re missing out on an opportunity to do business. Learning Spanish or ASL – even just a few words and customer-service phrases – could give your business a leg up.

“It opens up the doors of who you can serve and communicate with,” said Sarah Rowan, owner of Salud Spanish. “I think it makes your work more interesting and it opens up travel opportunities.”

For the past several years, the health care industry has really been leading the charge to train workers in basic Spanish, Rowan said. As emergency-care providers, nurses and hospital staff are often faced with situations where patients don’t speak English.

For that reason, staff at Birch Bay Family Medicine are taking classes with Rowan, said practice manager Jená Sticklin.

“Communication is a big deal in health care,” Sticklin said.

Communication breakdown in this setting can be costly and even lifethreatening. Even knowing just a few phrases can help staff find out basic information such as whether patients have family to contact or insurance to bill. For this reason, Spanish instructors around the country are rushing to teach as many health care workers as they can.

“I hate to call it crisis mode, but it’s a serious situation trying to figure out how to serve this population,” Rowan said.

Rowan has developed her own Spanish curriculum tailored to the health care industry and also offers customized classes for other types of business. She opened Salud Spanish in 2010 after selling a language school she started in Louisville, Ky., and moving to Bellingham.

Though Rowan has been teaching Spanish for more than 20 years, she spent more time in her previous business running a staff of 30 than she spent teaching. Now, as a one-person operation, Rowan gets to do all the teaching, which is what she really enjoys.

In her health care classes, Rowan focuses specifically on eight essential verbs and how to use them to ask questions.

“These programs are not for people who want to achieve fluency. It’s a real survival course,” she said.

And even a basic knowledge of Spanish can set you apart in any industry, Rowan said.

“No matter what field you get into, if you combine it with Spanish, you’ll get snatched up right away,” she said.

Getting over fear

After making the commitment to learn a new language, the biggest challenge people face isn’t pronunciation or grammar, but getting used to making mistakes, Rowan said.

“The main hurdle would be trying to get over that sensation of feeling stupid. You are like a child again,” she said. “Sometimes there’s an expectation that you can become fluent by osmosis.”

It’s the same with learning ASL, said Colleen Thomason, who owns the business Sign Language is Fun 4U. For most adults, the biggest challenge is overcoming the fear of making the wrong sign.

“But you can’t go wrong if you try,” Thomason said, adding that making mistakes helps you remember things better next time. “They think it’s all about memorization, but it’s more about practicing. It’s not like riding a bike.”

One aspect of ASL that makes it easy to learn, Thomason said, is that it can be simplified with body language. For example, rather than signing every word in the phrase ‘May I help you?’ you could simply raise your eyebrows and sign ‘Help you?’ and it would be understood as a question.

“You don’t need to know all the signs,” Thomason said. “Seventy percent of the language is based on eye contact and body language.”

Thomason has been teaching sign language for 15 years for every type of organization, from school districts to large retailers to police departments. She sometimes works as an interpreter, but she likes to focus more on teaching because it helps break down misconceptions people have about the deaf community.

“I want to help bridge the gap, and businesses are the best place to do that,” she said. “For businesses to get an interpreter, it can take an hour to a week because there are so few ASL interpreters.”

And that’s an opportunity wasted, Thomason said. Thomason has traveled all over the country training people in basic ASL for the workplace. Each industry has its own specific communication needs, whether it be signs for currency or directions, and Thomason customizes her classes to meet those needs. She also includes emergency signs in all her workshops.

Though sign language may seem complicated, it is very intuitive, Thomason said.

“It’s a very easy language to learn. There’s nothing tricky about it,” she said.

So the next time an opportunity comes around, take the risk and communicate in a different language – your customers will thank you.

Find out more

• Salud Spanish: offers eight-week conversational Spanish classes and business-oriented Spanish workshops tailored to specific industries. Check out the upcoming workshop on learning Spanish for the health care industry, Feb. 25-26 at the Community Food Co-op Connection Building.
(360) 383-7002,

• Sign Language is Fun 4U: offers sign language classes for kids and adults, plus customized classes for signing in the workplace.
(425) 327-0271,

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