The Value of Bilingual Education in the Workplace

January 1, 2011

I remember the look of terror on their faces on the first day of class, and now, on the last day of English classes how they were beaming, filled with pride and accomplishment, belying the journey these immigrants took from speaking little or no English with really thick foreign accents, to being able to make a public presentation in their “new and improved” English to their esteemed colleagues.

Eyes welled-up as the Vocational English as Second Language (VESL) students shared their success stories at this high-tech medical device company.

Twelve short weeks ago, Tran, an electrical assembler from a small village in Vietnam, walked into the VESL class slumped over in shame that her employer had asked her to attend English class. Today, she was outgoing, joked with others and even wore make-up. Her body language exuded self-confidence!

Loc, a PhD in electrical engineering, from mainland China, was indignant about also being asked to attend English classes, but at the same time he knew that in order to rise through the ranks, that he had to improve his English and communication skills. He had his eye on the upcoming “head of research” slot.

These students were given the opportunity by their employer to improve their English skills in order to move up through the ranks. The company knew that if they helped these employees improve their English skills the natural progression would be that these employees would then also improve their other skills. They knew that in order to become more successful in the marketplace, they needed to invest in their workforce, regardless.

This is America, you say! People should speak English!! Yes it is, but did you know that 50% of America’s workforce is currently from another country or ethnicity? That in some places this percentage can be as high as 90% or more! Did you know that in the West San Fernando Valley (in California), the second most popular language next to English is Farsi? Yes, Farsi, NOT Spanish… In the United States, the language issue crosses many borders, and cultures. We have always been a country of immigrants, starting with the Pilgrims emigrating from their native England in 1620 seeking religious freedom!

So the issue of teaching English in the workplace becomes a necessary tool in continuous improvement of any organization. The bonus to employers in California and some other states is that the State will pay for VESL on-site classes.

Other benefits of bringing English classes to your workplace include:

  1. It brings a sense of community to the workforce and connects typically segregated non-English speaking people together for one common goal.
  2. People get more involved. When native-English speaking co-workers are involved with immigrant workers as peer mentors or conversation partners, the interaction can help to strengthen teamwork and a sense of community at the workplace.
  3. Improves oral and communication skills.
  4. Eliminates potential safety risks. What happens if an employee cannot read a sign that says, “DANGER: High Voltage?”
  5. Standardizes the workplace. Yes, use English as the standard language.

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