A path to English proficiency

Helping employees achieve fluency in English takes several steps

"He's capped out." I frequently hear this from business owners and executives about their Latino supervisors or managers. I always ask for clarification.

"Do you mean he's capped out from a skill standpoint or language standpoint?" I ask.

More times than not the answer is: "Oh no, he knows as much as everyone else in higher positions, maybe more, but he can't communicate at the level he needs to in English."

The facts

According to a Pew Latino Research study, 7,874,361 out of 11,067,482 Mexican families speak English less than "very well" in the U.S. This is a significant percentage (70 percent) of the Spanish-speaking populace. In the roofing industry, many Latinos can get by with English in general conversations but are limited when they have business conversations or presentations. Not only do they lack the actual skill set, they lack confidence, which also is an important part of public language skills.

Many companies make the mistake of offering subpar English training to all their Latino associates. They offer group classes or commercially available programs that aren't designed to develop true business-language skills. Although owners offer these classes or programs out of a desire to help, few programs succeed and the people who most need this development—present and future Latino leaders—get shortchanged. In the process, your company is left with nondeveloped leaders who are capped out from future growth because of English-language limitations. This is unfair to the Latino leaders and your company.

The basics

So what should you do?

First, clearly identify your present and future Latino leaders whom you would like to promote to higher levels of your company. From a strategic standpoint, it is best to only provide English training for them.

Once you have identified these people, have each one assessed to determine his or her ability to learn a language.

It is not wise to send people through training for which they do not have the learning skills to succeed. This can, and should, be determined up front.

Next, test each person to ascertain his or her actual level of English skills. This should be professionally administered by a school or organization that specializes in English language training for Latinos. This includes reading, writing, speaking and comprehension skills. Then, have a program designed for individuals and set measurable goals and checkpoints.

There are three things you must avoid to succeed with language training:

  • Group classes. People are at different points in their language skill development, and every person learns differently. Bunching people together in a group class only ensures no one will learn to the highest degree possible or necessary. Serious language training must be designed specifically for individual students.
  • Having a bilingual person on staff conduct the language training. I drive a car, but I am not a mechanic. Just because someone speaks English does not mean they know how to teach English. Make sure you find a reputable and results-driven language training school that can assess your associates professionally as well as design a program that will get you the results you need. Make sure the school has a well-defined curriculum in place.
  • Training in person. About 30 percent of what we think we hear we actually see. When people are trained in person, they read lips and look at nonverbal cues. These people, subsequently, struggle if they are on a phone conversation conducted in a nonprimary language. It always is best to conduct individualized language training in a voice-only format either over the phone or through a service such as Skype but without video.

Understanding needs

Many Latinos, especially those in leadership positions, already speak some English or speak it well. If you put them in a general English training course, it simply won't meet their needs.

That being said, Latinos who already get by in English typically have three specific learning needs, or phases, to get to a professional level of English skills.

Accent-reduction training

My company's work teaching English to Latinos has helped us discover there are 10 sounds that are difficult for Latinos to pronounce. In classes my company conducts, we work hard initially on mastering these 10 sounds. Once these get cleaned up, we quickly can hear a huge difference in how someone sounds.

In addition, there is a speech-flow technique called neurological impress used in speech pathology to help Latinos develop accental tones that sound similar to native English speakers and are easy to understand.

Structural refinement

In this phase, full focus is put on cleaning up structural elements. The English language has 15 major verb patterns that are easy to master when learned correctly. These patterns make up 70 percent of all structure in the language. Beyond that, there are specific disconnects between Spanish and English, and students must clearly understand how to correctly connect and leverage their native language to the target language.

Of course, the program being used, and the instructor doing the training, must also have a clear understanding of Spanish. Adults do not learn like children and cannot learn in a vacuum. Learning English from English is learning in a complete vacuum and should not be done because learners will have no connection to their native language, which is critical to achieve higher-level skill.

For students to be effective in business-level conversations and presentations, they must have a minimum of 90 percent structural proficiency.

Vocabulary and conversation

Many native Spanish speakers have specific technical English vocabulary based on the field in which they work. For example, many Spanish-dominant roofing workers know many more roofing words in English than in Spanish. This makes sense especially if they have only been a roofing worker in the U.S. As a result, executives or owners believe these workers also have general business vocabulary, but they do not. They have specific technical vocabulary.

However, the higher a person moves up in position, the more balanced his or her English business vocabulary must become. He or she must be able to know and understand words in the fields of finance, leadership, administration, negotiation, organization and management, among others.

He or she also must be able to use these words lucidly and correctly within the context of higher level business conversations and presentations.


Language training always should be voluntary. People who are not committed to learning a language never will learn well. A properly developed English refinement program should take about 12 to 16 weeks and would require about six hours weekly, which would be divided into about four hours of dedicated study and two hours of one-on-one instruction with a trained language tutor.

One of the struggles for employees and their companies is the importance of having roofing workers on a job site during the day. The company and employee must determine together whether the English instruction will take place on the student's own time or whether the company can provide some dedicated learning time along with a dedicated learning space. This depends entirely on the value placed on the process and the end result. I have seen both approaches and hybrids of them work well.

As for training fees, you should expect to invest somewhere between $1,500 to $2,000 for professional training per student, which would include all materials and the two hours of one-on-one instruction weekly. These sessions should be divided into two one-hour sessions weekly at a minimum rather than one two-hour session, which is too long for good assimilation and doesn't provide the necessary consistency for a strong result. In some cases, I suggest students complete four 30-minute tutoring sessions weekly as this gives the optimal result but may not work for some employees from a logistical standpoint.

The main points

If you want Latino employees to be leaders and have a future with your company, be strategic and only offer English training to present or future leaders. To do so, properly filter and assess your students, and make sure you find a program designed by a reputable and results-driven language training institute.

At the end of the day, language goals for Spanish-speaking leaders should be to "uncap" them so they can rise within your organization and also have much greater levels of influence with your staff and client base.

Ricardo González is founder and CEO of Bilingual America, Atlanta.


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