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Lowering the language barrier

Marketplace Staff Nov 9, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The housing bubble’s petering out, as we’ve told you a couple of times. But while it lasted it was pretty amazing. It made a lot of people a lot of money and it had the construction sector booming. According to the Labor Department, another phenomenon started booming about the same time. The number of Latinos fatally injured on the job. Construction jobs are riskier than most, but one of the culprits was the language barrier. Blake Farmer has more.

BLAKE FARMER: Oscar Lainez moved from El Salvador to Nashville more than 10 years ago for a construction job. He says talking with his boss can still get confusing.

OSCAR LAINEZ:“You know, when I speak to somebody . . . Like you said a word a few minutes ago and I don’t know that word, so I get nervous. I mean, it’s normal I guess.”

It’s also dangerous, especially for foreign-born Latinos. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 625 of the 917 Latino workers who died on the job last year were born outside the U.S., just like Lainez.

Fred Humphreys, who’s president of the Home Builders Institute, says simple commands such as “don’t step there” and “put that here” can easily get lost in translation.

FRED HUMPHREYS:“Every single one of our members, in varying degrees, is facing this problem and this issue. And the problem’s growing.”

That’s why contractors around the country are looking for ways to address employee-supervisor misunderstandings.

In September, the Nashville-based contractor Rogers Group started offering language classes inside the construction zone.

THUY NGUYEN:“You’re new. What’s your name?

JOSE: Jose.

NGUYEN: Jose, where are you from?

JOSE: Mexico.

NGUYEN: I’m Thuy. These are your books. You have a pen?”

Rogers Group hired Thuy Nguyen to give immigrant workers some on-site English language training. Her class meets two hours each Wednesday.

NGUYEN:“Let’s see. Oscar and Ismael, you want to do the first part?

OSCAR AND ISMAEL: Sure, we can handle it.

Are you Antonio?

No, I am not. I am Ismael.

Oh, nice to meet you.”

Nguyen says after overcoming an initial fear of failure, her worker-students are eager to learn and realize the benefits of communicating in English.

NGUYEN:“They do have some basic English skills like ‘watch out’ or ‘hello,’ greetings, ‘mister,’ but not really enough to really communicate, like, health problems.”

Or avoid accidents without relying on hand motions. Nguyen says the biggest challenge, though, is for the students who come functionally illiterate in their own languages, such as Raul Limon.

RAUL LIMON:“In Mexico, sometimes you need work and you no go to school. I go maybe four years.”

Limon says his reading and writing skills in Spanish are only so-so. This is the first effort he’s made to study English. It’s an issue of time. Limon says like many Hispanic immigrants, he’s always working. Co-worker Jesus Cordova’s been in the U.S. for 20-years. He blames himself for neglecting English so long.

JESUS CORDOVA:“They have plenty of English school, but it’s my fault. I can put the time separate to go to school.”

He says making time for class gets easier when there’s a monetary incentive. Rogers Group participants are paid their regularly hourly wage during class. Humphreys of the Builders Institute says several of the country’s largest contractors have created these mini-language centers on-site.

HUMPHREYS:“But it’s not a realistic solution for the average builder.”

The majority of construction workers are employed by small-time builders who can’t afford to hire a tutor. That’s why the Builders Institute developed a program it calls “Sed de Saber” or “Thirst for Knowledge.” It’s a $400 take-home audio guide, designed with Hispanic construction workers in mind. The kits will be unveiled at the International Builders Show in February.

Until more contractors get on the ball with language instruction, Humphreys says work-site communication may look more like a game of charades.

In Nashville, I’m Blake Farmer for Marketplace.

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