Kentucky Employees Learn Spanish for their Jobs

Voluntary Spanish classes are a way for employees to provide better service to a growing Hispanic population.

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Kentucky's Hispanic population has grown rapidly. Though the size of the state's total Hispanic population ranks 39th in the nation, Kentucky consistently ranks in the top ten of all states for Hispanic population growth. Between 1990 and 2000, this population grew 173 percent. Much of the increase was driven by migrant farm workers.

Kentucky needed to find a way to provide services to its Spanish-speaking population. Some social service organizations in the state are required by federal law to have Spanish-speaking staff members. The law does not apply, however, to the customer service departments in the state, meaning that some state residents could have trouble receiving essential services or information. Without having these needs met, government suspicion and distrust can quickly develop.

In 2008, Tim Anderson, formerly the consulting services manager with Kentucky's Governmental Services Center (GSC), implemented Bienvenido mis amigos!, a program offering employees two basic courses in the Spanish language and Hispanic culture. Additionally, the state has developed a website with resources employees can use as they develop their Spanish-speaking skills.

I spoke with Anderson, now working with Kentucky's Transportation Cabinet, in a recent phone interview to learn more about the language program he implemented. An edited transcript follows.

How did you start GSC's Basic Spanish Customer Service Course?

I was the e-learning coordinator for a police academy [in Kentucky], and one of the initiatives that came out was teaching law enforcement to communicate with Spanish-speaking Americans. One of the guys that worked with me there came to work for me when I moved to the Personnel Cabinet. We discussed using the [Spanish] customer service class for state employees.

We thought that because the [number of] Spanish-speaking people in Kentucky increased so much over the last Census, it would be great if we gave people a resource to use at work -- even if it was nothing more than to [help them] communicate enough until they could get someone there to translate.

Were there similar programs being offered in different departments?

At that time, we didn't even have (in most of our state offices) translators. Some offices were different, like those offering social services programs. There was a federal requirement for them to have some Spanish speaking skills. We decided we should look into this for the rest of the state.

What information is covered in the basic class?

The basic class mainly just covers the alphabet, some basic words, some basic greetings, basic customer service terminology. For example, if someone asked you where the bathroom was, you could tell them.

What additional resources are available for students on the program's website?

The website actually has PDFs -- you can click on the word or phrase and it gives you the pronunciation. Not only [can] you see it written out phonetically, you [can] hear it being spoken correctly. There are some other hyperlinks to some other websites. Those PDFs [are] downloadable to keep on your desktop, hard drive or to print out, so you [don't] have to be on the website at all times.

How did you let employees know about the Spanish language program?

We had a couple of different avenues to tell people. On the website, we have a catalogue with all of our classes and it was listed there. We also sent out an e-mail. We have training liaisons at each agency that help manage the training under their cabinet or agency. We sent out an announcement to all of those agencies concerning this course, what the course would entail, who it would benefit, how they could apply for the class....

Additionally, on our check stubs, we can publish information. When you get your check stub, you can look and there is information on the portion that you throw away. The class was advertised quite often.

What was the initial response?

We had a huge response to the face-to-face class. That's one of the reasons we decided to take it online: We couldn't keep up with the demand and going online gave employees a longer period of time to take the class. We also made it available for an entire year after you take the class for your review or as a refresher. Of all our classes, it was one of our most popular.

The good thing about this class was it was very popular and it was one of the classes that people took on their own. They signed up because they wanted to, but it wasn't a mandatory class like the sexual harassment class. You can just volunteer for this class, and we still had a huge response.

How are the courses and website resources funded?

The Governmental Services Center -- it's coming out of their budget, but they receive funds based on a stipend from each employee. Basically, the Governmental Services Center is an entity funded by all of the other cabinets to be able to build these classes.

How do you deal with those who think English should be the only language spoken in the U.S.?

You do hear that, but it's usually from people who don't work with the public. If you work with the public, to function and do your job, you have to be able to communicate regardless of what the language is. So these comments were few and far between. I think, honestly, that that mentality is starting to subside some, so we really didn't hear that too much. I think what helped was [the program] was based on customer service. To be a good customer service provider, you have to be able to communicate.

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.