“Why Don’t They Just Learn English?”


Being largely in the business of teaching English-speaking males in the construction industry how to speak Spanish, this question comes up frequently.


The scene usually goes something like this: I am introduced by an Executive to a team of 10 employees. I say hello, drop some Spanish to momentarily disorient the group, only to bring them back around to how construction-specific Spanish skills will make their lives easier – safer jobsites (Latinos are nearly 2x as likely to be injured or killed due to language and cultural barriers), increased Productivity, smaller punchlists, cleaner jobsites – in short, less of the annoying stuff that makes construction frustrating.


Of the 10 people listening, 3 love the idea. They see it as an investment in themselves. They understand how valuable Spanish skills could be on the job.

3 are open to the idea, but they fail to see how this Red Angle offering is the finest thing since sliced tortillas. Interested, but not as enthusiastic as the first group.

2 are on the fence. They could go either way. They could join the 3 Interested, or they could join this next guy….

1 dislikes the idea, but is afraid of voicing his dissension. He will excuse himself to use the washroom for the next 15 minutes. I won’t see him again.

And 1 actively hates the idea, resents he has to learn Spanish in America – where Americans should speak American – and loudly (occasionally with surprising hostility) proclaims his disapproval for the idea and/or the tall, skinny bilingual redhead standing before him.

Enojado (ee-noh-HAH-doh) Not digging it



He may also mention something about “an unfunded mandate from the government,” 30’ high concrete walls along the Río Grande, and how his Italian/Irish/Polish/Lithuanian/Etc grandparents learned English the very moment they stepped barefoot on Ellis Island.


It’s an awkward time for the 12 of us.


I bring the conversación back to the realities of construction – there are plenty of variables we dislike about the jobsite, but we still must deliver the job on-time and under-budget with the men and women working here. Among other ethnic groups, there are an awful lot of Latinos working on our jobsites.


The tension resides at this point until The Vocal Dissenter, says this:


“Why don’t they just learn English?”


It’s a good question. I always start by informing the Executive that Red Angle does offer Construction-specific ESL (English as a Second Language) programs.

Depending on the mood, I may point out English is a pain in the neck to learn, citing the odd pronunciation differences between Laughter and Daughter and the challenges of explaining the nuances of Were :: We’re :: Where :: Wear :: Andre Ware to someone who only speaks Spanish. 



The fact is Latinos want to learn English. 

Earlier this month, the Pew Hispanic Center released an interesting report titled, When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity.


If you work with, alongside, sell to, or wish to sell to Latinos, I would strongly recommend reading it. The survey revealed a few interesting points around the “Why don’t they just learn English?” question:


38% of respondents were Spanish dominant, 38% were bilingual, and 24% were English dominant. But among US-born Hispanics, 51% were English dominant. 

So, part of the answer to the question is: More than half do learn English….


More directly, 87% said immigrants need to learn English to succeed in the US. Hispanics recognize, as we all do on some basic level, that learning the dominant language in a given country affords the individual benefits.


But… Hispanics also want future Hispanic generations to speak Spanish. 95% of Hispanics believe it is very important or somewhat important for future generations to be able to speak Spanish.




The rub: Spanish is here to stay because of the cultural ties within the family. As an English-speaker, think of Spanish skills akin to otaining an MBA. As the future unfolds, being bilingual may very well be more of an asset than a post-graduate degree.


So, What Can You Do? 

On the jobsite, keep in mind we are all in this thing together – we all agree effective communication helps maintain the schedule and minimizes Rework.

So at your weekly Toolbox Talk, have a Word of the Week pertinent to the topic you are discussing. Highlight 1 word, write it in large print on an 11×17 piece of paper in both English and Spanish.

Yeah, it’s only 1 word. But it’s a step in the right direction. And the simple act of recognizing the language barrier on the job will let people know you care – about people, culture, and the most effective way to communicate.

Bradley Hartmann is founder and el presidente at Red Angle (www.redanglespanish.com), a Spanish language training firm focused on the construction industry. 

Categories: Jobsite Leadership

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1 reply

  1. Thank you so much for posting this last April.

    I just finished Lucy Tse’s 2001 book for an ESL class (“Why Don’t They Learn English?”) and, beyond the problems of its age and reliance on self-reporting (such reporting is not reliable because people tend to overestimate their abilities in another language ), I was looking for something recent — and that Pew graph you included in your post absolutely hit it for me.

    As the director of a non-profit, I ran into prospective clients on a weekly basis who told me they would require an interpreter for our services (sometimes the interpreters reported back that the clients were perfectly capable of understanding and speaking English, they simply preferred the comfort of Spanish).

    I began asking informally how long they had lived in the US. The answers astounded me: 5, 8, 11 years. With the last one, I counted out in Spanish over the phone: “Siete, ocho, nueve, diez, ONCE??”. “Si.”


    These are people with school-age children in American classrooms, kids who need their parents’ aid.

    I began to tell clients, “Look, it’s so important to learn the language of the country you’re in.” “Oh, yes, yes.” “No, I mean it. Because you have kids in school, if you don’t get more English, you’ll be hurting their chances. They will suffer because their parents cannot help them.”

    It was as if a lightbulb went off in their heads.

    Why did it take so long for them to understand? Because (the Pew report) they want their children/grandchildren/great-grands to speak their heritage language. That’s quite different from preceding generations (or other contemporary cultures, as well), who felt that high-level competency in English was essential, and the heritage language (though not the family’s culture/beliefs) would need to be sacrificed.

    Huge difference in attitude.

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