Eliminating Language Barriers with Spanish, Simplified

Harold Torrence sits at the front of a classroom with this guitar. His pupils, a group of faculty and staff from the Lakeville School District, pay close attention from their desks.

Torrence, a Spanish and Supervisory Management faculty member and Customized Training coordinator at Dakota County Technical College, is there to conduct an Occupational Spanish program that is designed specifically for educators to learn phrases and words necessary to communicate with Spanish-speaking students and parents. The guitar is one of the many ways that he helps his students learn Spanish.

“The songs help with the learning process and make the whole experience more fun,” said Kay Peterson, a second grade teacher in Lakeville.

Lakeville – along with all of Dakota County – is one of the fastest-growing communities in Minnesota. And with the growth has come an increase in diversity.

“More non-English speaking families are coming in to us on a regular basis. It is frustrating when we aren’t able to help them due the language barrier. We needed to find a way to learn the basics so we can do our jobs,” said Steve Fridgen, an elementary special education instructor.

Cindy Stevenson, Lakeville’s staff development coordinator, learned of the training and began offering it has option for Lakeville School District employees. It has been so successful that this is the fifth group of teachers and administrators from the district who have embraced the opportunity to initiate the journey of learning Spanish, and they have found the classes to be very useful.

“There are things that you might not think of, like transcripts that we get from Mexico, that we couldn’t read because they are written in Spanish. The classes allow us to do those things,” said Jim Bowe, dean at Lakeville South.

Those every-day barriers are much of the reason that Torrence chose to develop the Occupational Spanish program. Having come to the United States from Venezuela, Torrence understands first-hand the challenges of speaking English as a second language.

“When I first came to the United States, I was very nervous – everything was very new to me. Developing this training has allowed me to enjoy the opportunity to help others understand the challenges that non-native speakers face,” said Torrence.

Just as learning English has its challenges, Torrence understands that learning the Spanish language can seem like a very big task, which is why he teaches Spanish specific to occupations.

“Learning the entire language seems like a daunting task, but if you can break it down, it is much easier. My students learn Spanish words and phrases that they can start using at their jobs right away. It speeds up the learning process and raises their retention because they are able to practice more,” said Torrence.

The Occupational Spanish program extends beyond just education, with Torrence having designed training for several police departments, real estate agents, banks, and other businesses and industries.

“I can modify the training not only to fit different occupations, but to fit different schedules. People like the flexibility,” said Torrence.

While that may true, Torrence’s students will tell you that what they like about the training goes far beyond the flexibility.

“It is wonderful to be able to get the perspective of someone who knows English as second language teaching us their native language. Plus, Harold makes the time fly. He uses a variety of different teaching methods and we always have fun,” said Peterson.