Teaching the Language of Work

Article excerpt

Several years ago, while my wife and I were visiting Germany, we decided to have dinner at the famed Hofbrauhaus in Munich. When we arrived, the beer hall was just as I had imagined it - the German polka band playing, tables of patrons singing along, and waitresses whisking by with those glorious tankards of Germany's best draft. We took our seats at an empty table; I held up two fingers in a peace-sign gesture to alert the waitress. After a few moments I realized that although the waitress had seen my gesture, she was still standing at her station talking to her co-workers.

I continued my hand gestures to no avail: the more I waved my peace sign back and forth, the more she talked and smiled over at me. Other people were enjoying more beers, and I had yet to receive any. I finally made my way over to the waitress station and said to the young woman who had smiled in our direction, "I would like two beers, please," still employing my now-useless hand gesture.

I will never forget what happened next. The waitress put her hand on my arm, indicating that my cultural lesson was about to begin, and demonstrated the correct way to order beer in Germany. She held up her right hand and, while lifting her thumb and forefinger straight up, said, "Eins, zwei... one, two." She repeated these new words for me several times and then let me try my new nonverbal cue. For the rest of our stay in Germany, we never had another problem ordering beer.

I often use this story to illustrate a basic lesson for organizations employing nonEnglish-speaking people. Although nonEnglish-speaking employees are nothing new in the United States, the vast amount of skills and knowledge required for them to be successful has never been greater. Years ago, a nonnative speaker could operate a machine or provide a service with little or no formal English required. Today, that same worker may have to identify safety procedures, support cross-functional teams, or participate in the company's ISO 9000 registration. The requirements of these improvement programs are almost always conducted in the language of the workplace: English.

The U.S. effort to train and develop world-class employees has largely been aimed at middle- and upper-management people. Programs abound to increase productivity for supervisors, managers, and executives, and many basic skills programs are available for English speakers. But what does a company do when frontline employees can't speak the language of work?

Organizations employing nonEnglish speakers have few choices where training is concerned. The most popular choice is some form of English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction. These programs, though effective in community-based settings, focus exclusively on learning the English language. It may take years to teach an adult to speak English, and even longer before he or she feels comfortable enough to use the new language at work. ESL is also known as Workplace Literacy or Basic Business Literacy, but it's still a program that focuses primarily on language acquisition.

Companies employing nonEnglish-speaking adults don't have the time or resources to train all of those people in English. Even if the employees become fluent in English after two or three years, they still may not have applied any of the language to their specific tasks on the job. Employers must develop a training program that is driven by skills, not by language, making English a tool and not the primary focus.

That night at the Hofbrauhaus I needed to learn only two words, eins and zwei. Upon learning the new words and the nonverbal cue, I was able to complete my task. I didn't need to learn the entire German language or even the German word for three. The same approach can help you develop and deliver a workplace productivity program for nonEnglish speakers. By using only functional English terms to teach job-specific skills, you can cut training time dramatically. …