Breaking the Language Barrier with Full-Immersion Courses

  • Culture
  • Diversity & Inclusion
by Aidan Freeman | Oct 17, 2023

As a leader in innovative logistics solutions, Wabash is always striving to cultivate a workplace culture that challenges conventional norms. When we consider the dynamics of the modern world, it’s essential to not only adapt to the evolving supply chain but also understand the changing expectations of current and future employees. A recent study conducted by Brookings predicts that by 2045, the Hispanic population in the United States will grow significantly, resulting in a more linguistically diverse population.

Proceeding forward as One Wabash, we’re not just thinking about our brand but also about our commitment to fostering a culture where employees can express their truest selves. We believe that genuine diversity and inclusivity will thrive when we embrace them at all levels of the organization. Today, we’re beginning a journey towards an environment where language is becoming less and less of a barrier.

In a recent collaboration, Wabash in Lafayette, IN, partnered with local community college Ivy Tech to develop a comprehensive Spanish immersion course open to employees of all language skill levels. The idea for this initiative emerged from our Continuous Improvement Specialist, Paula Wilson, who recognized the need to better connect with members of the workforce in her immediate surroundings.

“I lived in China for a year, and during that time, I felt what it was like to not be able to understand what others are saying around you,” said Paula. “I can only imagine how difficult it must be in a workplace setting.”

Paula brought forth her concern with the rest of the Continuous Improvement (CI) team, prompting them to collectively explore potential solutions. Initially, they considered the straightforward approach of translating the staff meeting PowerPoints into Spanish and presenting them alongside the English slides in hopes of providing some support. However, the team decided to take their efforts a step further by proposing the idea of offering a dedicated course for employees to begin learning Spanish.

“We decided to reach out to Ivy Tech, and they were absolutely excited to work with us,” said Paula, who also participated in the course. “It wasn’t your typical memorization with flashcards; it was an interactive experience with skits and real-world conversations.”

Paula mentioned that the course was designed to cater to specific aspects of the shop floor, incorporating language and terminology commonly used in that environment. It focused on critical areas such as maintenance and safety, delving into scenarios essential for ensuring smooth operations. Additionally, it took a more pinpointed approach by focusing on the culture surrounding the language and proper etiquette. Once the course was finalized, word quickly spread, and members from various departments enrolled, including Human Resources Manager Joe Kremer.

For Joe, this opportunity meant more than just acquiring a new language; it was a chance to establish deeper connections with people. In his role as an HR manager, Joe frequently engages in one-on-one conversations that can sometimes involve sensitive topics.

“I’ve always hated having to rely on an interpreter in the room when I’m talking with employees,” he shared. “Especially when discussing personal subjects. My main motivation for enrolling in this course was to better understand and connect with the people that matter the most to me.”

Joe found the experience incredibly valuable, although it required some patience. He has been working closely with his colleagues to create a more immersive environment that fosters his language learning journey.

“But you know what? It’s been incredibly worth it,” Joe stated. “Right now, we’re in danger of leaving people behind. This is a great step in making sure that everyone has access to the information they need and feels included in our workplace.”

Wabash Environmental Health & Safety Specialist Aissata Toure, who has a multilingual background from Senegal, participated in the course as well. Her upbringing included a strict curriculum that covered Arabic, French, English, and a small degree of Spanish.

“The system I had back home was a very intensive program,” she shared. “Within two years of just having two classes, I was able to learn as much as I did.”

Aissata expressed her interest in learning Spanish to her manager, who directed her to the program. Given her prior studies, the course served as more of a review for her.

“As I was going through the course, it was all still making sense to me,” said Aissata. “And I really liked that we had a native speaker as a teacher, so you would learn about the culture as well. That’s really unique and helpful to me.”

Joe and Aissata quickly observed the impact of their efforts. While Joe still occasionally relies on an interpreter for sharing information, he’s gradually grasping more of what employees are saying and hopes to be able to present plant meeting slides in Spanish someday.

Aissata shared a recent experience where her language skills began to enhance her relationship with immediate employees. She noticed that during a presentation, many employees were struggling to understand and missed the mention of a giveaway prize. Taking the initiative back home, she manually translated the giveaway portion into Spanish and spoke it at the next meeting, resulting in smiles and positive responses.

As an introductory step in this journey, the CI team has begun translating Safe Work Instructions (SWI’s) into Spanish to assist frontline workers to aid in process improvement and increase quality of life at work. Wabash is continuing to explore options to make the class available to employees more broadly. We are anticipating another course in Q4 of 2023 and exploring virtual options with additional classes in early 2024.

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