Striving to Learn Spanish

Striving to Learn Spanish

Changing local demographics has led some residents to adapt by learning to speak Spanish.

With cups of coffee in hand, the four adult students sat in an upstairs conference room in downtown Herndon listening to their teacher, Bridget Anderson, before going to work last Tuesday morning.

"What we're going to do is we're going to practice just the top 10 phrases here," Anderson said, referring the students to a list of commonly-used Spanish expressions that she distributed at the beginning of class. "Studies have proven the sooner you say something 1,000 times, you're going to learn it — so we're going to practice these over and over again."

The weekly Spanish class, which was missing one student from its normal roster of five last Tuesday, is organized by the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce for member employees. It has been going on since November of last year.

Practicing how to say common questions such as "where do you work?" "where do you live?" and "what is your name?" the students work down the list, discussing ways to use the questions in an upcoming reception for the chamber's Hispanic Business Council.

The students are part of a number of people who do business in Northern Virginia and who have taken it upon themselves to adapt to a growing need to communicate with the growing Hispanic population.

FOR CHAMBER MEMBERSHIP Director Ellen Kaminsky, one of the founders of the chamber's weekly Spanish class, the drive to learn to speak Spanish is almost a necessary part of communicating in Northern Virginia.

Inspiration to sponsor the class and to learn the language came when she realized a growing rift in communication between herself and the growing Hispanic community.

"A lot of my community and business work has been centered around the immigrant population," Kaminsky said. "I found that I wasn't able to communicate fully with the people I had associated myself with."

Frustrated and embarrassed that she was not able to speak or fully understand the language, Kaminsky has been striving to learn and speak Spanish on a daily basis for the last several years, she said.

"With Spanish there are so many opportunities to speak it and learn it on a daily basis," Kaminsky said.

Some of her individual strategies for learning the language have included reading Spanish magazine articles and watching the Spanish nightly news and "telenovelas" (Spanish soap operas) on television.

Despite the amount of work she has and will put in to learning the language, it has been worth it, she said.

"When I was overseas, the joke was that if you speak several languages, you're multilingual, if you speak two languages, you're bilingual and if you speak one language, you're American," she said. "You have to be able to see things from multiple perspectives — and one of the ways I've been able to personally do that is through learning Spanish."

THE INTEREST IN learning Spanish hasn't all been a product of personal curiosity, said Anderson.

The president of Cultural Commerce, a consulting group that organizes customer service tutorials and teaches occupational Spanish to adults, Anderson said that she has seen a large interest from local companies trying to communicate with the Spanish-speaking community.

"Our work force has changed dramatically in recent years, and if you have a business here, you'll probably have to hire [Spanish-speaking] people," Anderson said. "It affects your productivity when you can't communicate with your workers — it affects a company's bottom line."

One of the people who have experienced that communications barrier is Bob Warhurst, the owner of the Fairfax-based Merrifield Garden Center.

"We have probably 300 or 350 Spanish-speaking employees … and I was tired of not being able to communicate with them," said Warhurst of his drive to learn Spanish.

Seeing the vast importance of having bilingual workers to communicate with the Spanish-speaking staff, Warhurst organized for a Spanish teacher to come in and teach he and his employees Spanish for two hours once a week. He has been hosting the class for three years. Warhurst also worked with Anderson this year to put together a booklet of landscaping-related Spanish phrases and words for his employees.

While he said that he believes that his workers should learn to speak English as well, making that demand has not been completely practical for his business.

"My philosophy is to try and teach them English as much as we can and at the same time to learn Spanish as much as we can," said Warhurst. "It takes a long time to learn a different language, you can't just pick it up right away — we need to meet them halfway."

WHILE LEARNING to speak a foreign language requires lots of time and patience, the dividends can be far-reaching, Anderson said.

Learning Spanish "opens your world up so much," she said. "Think of the large number of people who speak Spanish — and the large number of countries that you can visit and the experiences you can have if you speak the language."

Knowledge of the language doesn't just mean an edge in business relationships, but also increased options for the future, Kaminsky said.

"I suspect after I retired I'll spend a lot of time traipsing through the jungle — and if I can speak Spanish I can get around a lot easier in some of those countries," she said.

For Warhurst, the process has been an intellectual challenge.

"I take it as a mind exercise," he said. "When you're learning a new language is makes your mind sharper."

Warhurst's ability to speak Spanish has proven useful throughout his daily life, he said. Spanish-speaking people are "mechanics, they're janitors, they do everything, so it's only helpful to be able to speak to them."

Sometimes it's about just being in-tune with the people around you.

"I have to say that my biggest inspiration is not wanting to feel left out when I hear people speaking Spanish," Kaminsky said. "There are an awful lot of people around me who are talking and I don't know what they're saying."

"I want to know what they're saying."