“Hasta la vista Kitty,” was written to greet their professor in huge letters on the board at the front of the classroom. Pages of notes read “¿Dónde está su casco?” or “Where is your hard hat?” and translations for phrases such as “help is on the way” and “road safety is important.” It was the last of a 15-week course to teach Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) employees introductory Spanish.
The class was the first of its kind in VDOT’s 14-county Richmond District, and began in October in the hopes that VDOT employees —especially those working closely with contracted crew members and other employees who are primarily Spanish-speaking—would be able to better communicate in their jobs. From everyday landscaping projects to cleanup efforts in the aftermath of events such as Hurricane Isabel and tropical storm Gaston, VDOT crews realized the need for better communication as they tried to conquer the language gap with Spanish-speaking employees.
It’s not just in road projects that VDOT crews encounter the communication mismatch. “Quite often we run into people, whether they’re broken down in the middle of a road or lost, or they’re involved in an emergency situation, and they happen to speak Spanish,” said Carnell Harper, superintendent for the District’s Crater Road Area Headquarters. “We want to try to help, but we run into that language barrier.”
Harper, along with Joe Echols, superintendent for the Jennings Ordinary Area Headquarters in Amelia County, threw around the idea of taking a night class on their own, but interest grew quickly from other employees in pursuing a Spanish course. “The more we talked the more we found out that other people in VDOT wanted this,” Harper said. The idea was brought to Richmond’s District Training Center, where work began to create a beginning Spanish class tailored for VDOT.
VDOT recruited Kitty Neale, a retired Spanish schoolteacher who continued to teach special projects through local community college programs, to teach the basic skills that would allow VDOT crews to communicate with Spanish-speaking coworkers and customers. She sought input from the VDOT students on the types of conversations they’d have in their jobs. She then modified a curriculum that involved lessons on basic Spanish, with vocabulary specific to roads and transportation.
“This class has been completely different from any other that I’ve taught,” Neale said. “I tried to tailor the class for them — I asked them what they would like to know, and each week they came to me with new phrases that could help them in their jobs.”
From translations of equipment and road sign directions to office instructions and emergency responses, students learned the specialized terms that would let them communicate successfully in Spanish. The course also included a solid base of beginning language skills, such as numbers, foods, family members, time, objects, basic greetings, conversations and verbs.
“Tell me what you’ve learned that will help you in your job every day,” Neale asked the class on the final day of their training. Debbie Tash, a Right of Way agent whose department specializes in land purchases and legal matters for road projects, answered, “Favor de poner su firma en el contracto aquí, por favor,” meaning, “Please sign the contract here.”
The course caters to more than just employees working with Spanish-speaking crews, Tash said. Three members of Richmond’s Right of Way section attended the class. The knowledge Tash has gained from the class hasn’t made her fluent in Spanish, she said, but has helped her feel more comfortable about understanding and communicating with citizens who may need it.
“A lot of people think that [Spanish-speaking landowners] should learn English, but it doesn’t always work that way, especially in the business world,” she said. She would now feel more comfortable communicating in Spanish about road projects and legal matters. “I would still bring a translator, but I feel better knowing that I could say certain things, and more importantly have an understanding of what the other person is saying.”
Spanish is the most common non-English language spoken in the Richmond area, according to Alexis Thornton-Crump, Assistant Division Administrator for Internal Programs in VDOT’s Civil Rights section. As a recipient of federal funds, VDOT has a responsibility to provide for employees affected by Limited English Proficiency throughout the agency.
VDOT is working statewide to improve communications with its Spanish-speaking employees, including more internal publications, materials and operations such as telephone systems presented in Spanish. The agency also plans to work with translation services and track usage of these items to better meet the needs of its Spanish-speaking employees.
The Richmond District hopes to add beginning Spanish to its list of regularly offered courses available to VDOT employees.