Talking the talk

If you or your supervisors struggle to communicate with a Spanish-speaking work force, your old high school or college textbooks probably aren’t going to be much help.

Fortunately there is “Learning Construction Spanglish, A Beginners Guide to Spanish On-the-Job,” a book by Terry Eddy and Alberto Herrera written specifically for the needs of construction supervisors.

From the outset it’s obvious this is not your high school Spanish textbook. It’s written in a casual style with the same sort of breezy banter you find on most construction sites. And it starts out with a bang, arming you in the first lesson with a handful of key phrases and concepts to help solve your immediate communication needs – how to say who, what, when, where, up, down, push, pull, more, less … and watch out!

Sooner or later you have to learn some grammar and that can be one of the biggest hurdles for anybody. Eddy and Herrera attack this problem early on, again with some very basic grammar. And their explanation of verb tenses is the clearest and easiest to understand that I’ve seen.

One of the strongest aspects of the book is the way the authors help the reader with memory aids for certain words. For example, to help you remember “lateral” the Spanish word for “side,” the book advises:

“Easy for you football fans, because a lateral is a pitch out to the side, right?”

Every language has its peculiarities. Spanish has two words for the verb “to be.” One indicates a permanent condition, the other temporary. This must-know verb is one of the first you should learn. It’s how you say “I am,” “he is” and “you are.” To help you understand the two different words for it in Spanish, the authors handle it in this memorable way:

“Ser is the verb of choice for politics, religion and marriage. (Of course if you don’t think your marriage is going to last long, you are free to use estar … indicating that marriage, for you, is a temporary condition … but use it at your discretion. We are not responsible for the consequences).”

On any jobsite you’re going to hear lots of slang, regional colloquialisms and terms that mix Spanish and English. This is “Spanglish,” and north of the Mexican border, it’s a fact of life. Just knowing what you may be hearing on the jobsite is not perfect Spanish – that it’s a language in the making – helps keep you focused and actively listening.

Many of the vocabulary words and some of the dialogue sections pertain to situations more commonly found on homebuilding sites and in specialty trades. This is of limited use to earthmoving contractors. But a good Spanish-English dictionary helps and there are other reference books listed below that can expand your vocabulary. Overall, I don’t think you’ll find a more useful or enjoyable resource to help you or your supervisors get up to speed fast on what’s becoming a necessary skill in today’s construction business.

“Learning Construction Spanglish: A Beginners Guide to Spanish On-the-Job” is published by McGraw-Hill and is available for $16.95 at bookstores and many construction trade shows. For more information, go to this site.

Continuing education
No one book or program is going to make you fluent in any language. Fortunately there are resources available today to help you speak and better understand Spanish.

Depending on how good you want to become at this you may want to enroll yourself or your supervisors in a local community college or university continuing education class. Before you sign up, make sure what you’re getting is “occupational Spanish” or “vocational Spanish.”

If you want to train a group of supervisors, another possibility is to hire a local instructor to come to your office or jobsites and give instruction. While this might be more expensive, it usually offers more flexibil ity in scheduling. A good corporate trainer will be able to tailor the instruction to meet the specific needs of your construction business.

Spanish-language instruction for English speakers
Here are a few additional reference tools that will help expand your construction-related vocabulary in Spanish:

“Easy to Learn Construction Spanish” – A 60-minute audio course on CD. $14.95. Call (866) 323-1255 or visit this site.

“Workplace Spanish for Commercial Construction” – Includes a 57-page workbook and 60-minute audio CD. $34.99. Call (770) 993-4075 or visit this site.

“Survival Spanish for Construction” – A 60-minute audio CD, workbook and pronunciation guide. $19.95. Call (704) 662-9424 or visit this site.

Bilingual instruction materials
Even if you’re training yourself or your supers to become fluent in Spanish, it can’t hurt to help your Spanish-speaking workers learn more English, especially when it comes to safety issues and construction-related terms. Bilingual training guides, dictionaries and materials can help. Some of these include:

CommuniCards – These are pocket-sized, laminated booklets that show pictures depicting different construction tasks, equipment and tools and each illustration is described in both English and Spanish. The booklets cost $9.95 each and cover trenching and irrigation, drywall and sheetrock, cleanup and demolition and other subjects. For more information, visit this site.

“DeWalt Illustrated Spanish/English Construction Dictionary” – Another pocket-sized reference, the DeWalt book has more than 200 illustrations and their terms in both languages. The cover is tear, oil and water resistant and the pages fold flat when laid on a surface. About $20 in homebuilding supply centers, bookstores and online booksellers.

Safety videos in Spanish
When dealing with an immigrant work force, remember that some of these workers may be illiterate – unable to read at all, even in their native language. Safety videos can help you communicate jobsite hazards to this group without the need for written instructions.

The Associated General Contractors of America has a variety of these videos for sale on their Web site covering everything from tailgate talks to application-specific hazards in areas like fall protection and asphalt paving. For more information, go to this site and click on the Safety and Risk Management line.

Occupation Safety and Health Administration safety materials
A few years ago OSHA noticed a steep rise in the accident rate among Hispanics working in construction. Since then the agency has developed an aggressive Hispanic outreach program and their main Web site is loaded with Spanish-language resources that you can use. Just go to this site, and click on the Hispanic line in the column on the left-hand side of the page. The agency’s full Spanish-language Web site is at this site.