Striving to break the language barrier
by Emily Adams
For Everardo Vazquez and his family, moving to the United States from Mexico more than 20 years ago was an opportunity for a better quality of life.

Their dream of a successful business, a good education and a safe place to live has largely come to fruition, but the transition wasn’t made without much hard work.

“To me, the mother of learning is necessity,” said Vazquez, owner and manager of LaCosta Mexican restaurant in Sylacauga. “You have to feel the need to learn. If you don’t feel that, you won’t try.”

Knowing only minimal English when he and his wife, Leonor, and their three daughters came to the country, Vazquez said he was often frustrated by the language barrier, but was still able to survive.

“I started working in the U.S. first in California at a casino, and all the workers spoke Spanish,” he said. “To do my job, I did not need English. In 1992, I was invited to work in the restaurant business in Alabama. In the kitchen, I still didn’t need English, but when I started to get out, deliver chips and take orders, I had to talk to people, and that was my first time having to learn. When you have to know it for your job and your livelihood, you must learn it quick.”

He said many Hispanic people are not in a situation where they must speak English; however, knowing the native language makes life more enjoyable.

“For some it’s easy, for others it’s very difficult, but everyone has their own potential and reasons for learning or not learning the language,” Vazquez said. “I know everyone here at the restaurant feels the need to communicate.”

Though the Hispanic community in Talladega and St. Clair counties remains relatively small at 2.1 and 2.2 percent, respectively, according to 2011 U.S. Census data, local agencies must still address the obstacles presented by non-English speaking patrons. Police, hospitals, schools and others strive to provide services at the same level that English-speakers would receive.

“It doesn’t get as much public attention as it did at one time, but communicating with our growing Hispanic community is still an issue that we run into very often,” Pell City Police Chief Greg Turley said.

He said census numbers are likely not reflective of the true population, and a sad truth is that officials “really can’t tell you what our Hispanic population is.” Police often find that group is wary of public assistance for fear of deportation, even if they are legal residents.

“That’s not just here; it’s everywhere,” Turley said. “That’s why, as a chief, I always try to communicate with the Hispanic Coalition, especially since the immigration bill came out, to see how we can help. I think we need to embrace the opportunities we have to try and bridge those cultures, and we should try twice as hard to earn their trust as public safety leaders.”

Police in Pell City, Talladega and Sylacauga said they have never encountered a serious situation where language came into play, but having a means of communication is still crucial.

“When we first started getting more Hispanics about 15 years ago or longer, the biggest problem was when they were victims,” Talladega Police Chief Alan Watson said. “They were really getting robbed and burglarized, which did make it difficult for them to be able to give us the information we needed.”

Now, Watson said, there are several methods to convey information. Police are occasionally sent to “Survival Spanish” courses to learn basic conversation skills; they also use cell phone apps to translate from one language to another; and they rely heavily on others within the Hispanic community. Volunteers or other interpretation services are requested in the rare instance they are needed.

“What we see, for the most part, is that if a person is not English-speaking, they live in a group where at least one or two can speak English and translate,” Watson said. “We have a few officers who can muddle their way through some Spanish, but unfortunately, it’s one of those things where if you don’t continuously use that knowledge, you lose it.”

Hospitals have the same type of services at hand. Coosa Valley Medical Center in Sylacauga has at least one Spanish-speaking employee and also has access to a phone line that delivers on-the-spot translation, said business development officer Vanessa Green.

In schools, however, bare minimum communication is not enough when teachers must not only talk to but teach non-English speaking students. Salter Elementary School in Talladega is one school that has developed a successful system for teaching its 36 Hispanic students.

“We love having our Hispanic students here,” principal Jenni Griffin said. “Their parents really value their children’s education, and they are some of our most well-behaved students.”

Griffin said students usually speak no English when they start school, but are able to understand basic instructions within just a few weeks.

“We have a lot of their language posted around the classrooms, and we have purchased bilingual books that they can take home and read with their parents,” she said. “The majority of the parents don’t speak English either, so their children are the greatest help to them because they learn to speak both languages.”

Edilsa Nolen, a native Spanish speaker, has translated for the Talladega City School System for 10 years, though most of her time is spent at Salter since other schools only average about two non-English speaking students. Nolen works with small groups at a time to translate classroom assignments and help students connect their language with English.

The younger they are when they begin to learn, the easier it is, she said.

“Most of them come here in kindergarten and the first three or four months, they’re just kind of listening,” Nolen said. “They will say words but not know what they mean, and eventually they have that ‘aha’ moment where they understand. They seem to pick it up like a sponge.”

Students starting at an older age are put through an intensive learning schedule using the Rosetta-Stone program. They are typically comfortable speaking English within a year, and Griffin said the language barrier has no noticeable impact on the students’ school performance.

“They make excellent grades, and usually by the time they’re in second or third grade, they no longer need help with translation,” she said.

For the Hispanic population outside of the classroom, learning English revolves around how well they listen, Vazquez said. All the employees at his restaurant eventually learn the same way, he said — from talking to customers. First they pick up on ‘tomato,’ ‘bell pepper’ and other food words until they graduate to conversations.

“You start to talk about other things going on in their life, where before you weren’t comfortable with that,” he said. “It’s very hard though, because your mind thinks in Spanish and then has to translate it to English. It’s an extra process you have to go through.”

No matter the purpose or level of communication, language barriers can ultimately be summarized by the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words.” Turley said most of the information they need as public officials is plain to see.

“What you’ll find, like anything else in life, is that a lot of what’s communicated is nonverbal, so what you say and how you say it extends beyond the language barrier lines,” Turley said. “We work to bridge those gaps, and we’re going to continue to do that no matter what happens politically. Our job is to protect lives and properties no matter what ethnicity.”

Vazquez said public services have come a long way in communicating with non-English speakers since he first moved to the area, though other states he has visited like California and Texas have even better means. He said his family and friends were surprised by his choice to live in Alabama, which is not known for welcoming their community, Vazquez said, but he has experienced more good than bad.

“It’s not like what people probably think about how we are treated here,” he said. “I know I live in the best country in the world, and it makes me feel excellent, even better than my home country. We get a lot of support, and I have met some of my best friends in this area. We love Sylacauga and the life we have here.”

© 2013