Why Hispanics on your job don’t speak English… to you.

January 9, 2013


People like to be recognized for their skills.
The holiday season, chock-full of family time, is a great atmosphere for positive recognition. 
Like when your wife received a hearty applause for displaying the range of her double-jointed elbow.    
Or when Uncle Jeff wowed the family with three one-armed push-ups.      
Or when your cousin Cliff won $100 by drinking a gallon of milk in under an hour.  
You get the idea. 
Or not. Maybe my family is different…. 
Anyway - humans enjoy recognition for their special skills. They enjoy being appreciated. This is true for all cultures, industries, and ages (although some need it more than others. Millennials: I’m talking to you...).
If we understand this human character trait - the need for recognition - why would anyone ever choose to hide their special skills?
For example, if someone was bilingual in English and Spanish - a very helpful skill these days - why would they pretend to be unilingual?
I hear this comment frequently at Red Angle
These drywallers pretend to not know any English, but I know they do. When I tell them about some problem, oh no, no, no, no…. ‘No habla’ they say…. No one knows any English then.” 
Let’s suppose that’s true.
Suppose these drywallers are bilingual and when excrement hits the proverbial fan, they pretend to know only Spanish. 
Since we’re on the subject of pretending - pretend you’re an economist. As an economist you know incentives matter. Incentives drive behavior. The trick is determining what incentives will drive which behavior. 
So, what incentives would cause bilingual construction folks to turn unilingual?    
More appropriately, what disincentives exist to discourage the usage of both languages on the jobsite?
It can be helpful to put yourself in their shoes…. Say you are a bilingual drywaller.
One disincentive to you is every time there’s a drywall problem (root cause not yet known…), the Superintendent comes to you. 
Wall is bowed - they’re coming to you.
Dinged corner bead - they’re coming to you.
Purchasing had incorrect sheet counts - they’re coming to you.
Water leak = damaged drywall - they’re coming to you.
You get the idea. 
Or not. Maybe your jobsite is different…. 
If the news is always bad, what’s the incentive for being the only one to receive it?
Let someone else deal with it for a change. In speaking candidly with many Hispanics, this is their feeling.
I ask the Hispanics about positive feedback. 
How often do you get positive recognition? 
Rarely to never.
Do you feel appreciated for your work? 
Rarely to never.    
So I ask the English-speaking Superintendent, the same one who just knows they speak English
You ever give these drywallers any recognition? 
Any positive feedback?
Any appreciation?
You know what I hear most often? 
Well, I’m not sure which ones speak English….” 
We can’t have it both ways. 
Research out of the Pew Hispanic Center indicates English fluency among Hispanics is a 50-50 proposition.
Of the 50M+ Hispanics in the US, about half speak English well.
So treat it that way. 
Start a conversation.
Take a chance. 
Compliments are free - use them.
Great job!” a sincere smile, and a pat on the back will bridge any language gap, real or otherwise. 
El Presidente

Bradley Hartmann is El Presidente of Red Angle, a Spanish language training firm focused exclusively on the construcción industry. Hartmann has been successful improving Safety, Productivity and Profitability by speaking Spanish on the jobsite. Hartmann lived in Guadalajara, México, during his undergraduate studies and later earned his MBA. Hartmann also teaches Construction Spanish at Purdue University’s Building Construction Management Program. He has authored two books: Spanish Twins: Start Speaking Spanish on the Construction Site with Words You Already Know and Safety Spanish: Simple Spanish Skills for Solving Safety Problems. Hartmann would love to hear your thoughts digitally at bradley@redanglespanish.com or at 630.234.7321.