City workers learning Spanish to bridge communication gaps with growing Hispanic population

Fares da Silva, president of Silva Languages, instructs City employees in an 8-week Spanish course offered at City Hall.

COVINGTON, Ky. – Covington es una ciudad que celebra su diversidad, equidad e inclusión.

Thanks to an 8-week Spanish course initiated by the City of Covington’s Human Resources Department, a group of City employees is on track to read and speak Spanish with confidence. It’s further evidence that Covington celebrates diversity, equity, and inclusion (which is what that first sentence states).

Human Resources Manager Stacey Hoeter said nine City employees are enrolled in the initial program offered through Silva Languages, LLC in Florence.

“It’s part of a Human Resources diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative,” she said. “The employees who signed up for the course will continue the current class for a second session, which will review Spanish 1 plus allow staff to be able to talk and ask follow-up questions.”

Elizabeth Glass, who’s enrolled in the classes, sees a newly acquired language as an important asset in her frequent communications with Covington residents in the course of her workday.

“Providing a more inclusive environment for our diverse city is something I value, and I hope that it helps those communities to feel valued as well,” said Glass, who is executive assistant to the City Manager. “I help answer phones and assist with permitting of various sorts, and I appreciate that I will have more tools to assist.”

Seeking seamless communication

Fares da Silva, president of Silva Languages, said that with the increasing growth of an international population in the region, he’s moved from preparing employees with local companies to communicate outside the U.S. to preparing employees for local communication needs.

“Many non-English speaking employees taking ESL courses report performing better at work once they improve their English skills,” said da Silva. “In addition to that, native English speakers that take language courses to communicate with their international employees report having better rapport and accomplishing more in the workplace.”

The Spanish classes were the brainchild of the City’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee. Covington officials started the classes after one of the City’s Solid Waste & Recycling personnel brought up a recent encounter with a business owner who didn’t speak English. The language barrier made it difficult to convey available resources, programs, and proper compliance.

 “At one point, one of the business’s employees left the store and came back with a school-aged child who attempted to communicate since they spoke both English and Spanish,” said Stephanie Bacher, the Solid Waste & Recycling coordinator and DEI committee member. “It worked in that moment, but it shed a light on the fact that Covington has a large population of folks whose first language is Spanish and City Hall, at that point, had only one or two Spanish speakers. Those weren’t good odds for being able to effectively serve all of Covington’s population.”

Implementing a training program, especially for our frontline personnel who interact with the public daily, will be extremely helpful in dismantling these barriers, said Stacey Hoeter, the City’s Human Resources Manager, who added that key positions in divisions such as Code Enforcement, Solid Waste, and Parks & Recreation, and others will benefit from the course.

 “The classes will introduce basic modes of communication in Spanish – speaking, listening, reading, and writing as target skills – in addition to presenting an overview of the Spanish culture,” said Hoeter.”

John Hammons, the City’s CDBG/HOME Coordinator, said language barriers can lead to people potentially missing out on utilizing City programs rightfully open to them.

“Everyone should feel comfortable in City Hall,” Hammons said. “Spanish is the principal language outside of English that we see, and it shouldn’t be just one or two people at the City who are able to communicate with a large section of our populace.”

Added Hammons: “It’s hard to overstate how grateful I am for this opportunity to gain these skills. The people chosen for the class interface with the public, so the lessons are being applied right where they are needed.”

Skipping the language ‘middleman’

The number of “Latino” residents – as defined by the federal government – in Covington more than doubled between the 2010 and 2020 U.S. Census to 7.1 percent, and that population is widely thought to be undercounted.  For other evidence of growth in the number of families with a Hispanic heritage, see “The Cov’s changing face.”

Patrick Duffy, the City’s Business Retention& Expansion Specialist, engages with the City’s business community daily, and said he’s “obsessed with learning Spanish right now.”

“I am excited to converse with our Spanish-speaking business owners about the ways the City can help their businesses thrive,” Duffy said. “There has always been a bit of a barrier when interacting with these businesses. Now I’m excited to be able to speak to those folks, some of which are my neighbors.”

Teaching a new language to native English speakers skips the middleman, since employees can directly communicate rather than through an interpreter. The most frequently requested courses in the region are Spanish, ESL (English as a Second Language), French, and Portuguese, da Silva said.“Learning a foreign language not only bridges the communication gap but also propels culture change through communication,” da Silva said. “Having work signs in their native languages along with English also helps build the communication gap.”

Silva Languages takes what is called a “Communicative Approach” to language teaching, which emphasizes learning to communicate through interaction in the target language. In addition to the textbook, they introduce authentic texts, video, and audio into the learning situation.

“This method is particularly effective because it takes away from the common fear of speaking a foreign language due to not immediately being fluent,” said da Silva. “The main goal is to communicate rather than focusing on prescriptive grammar. The learning process is described by students as being ‘fun’ and ‘quicker’ as they start speaking in the target language on day one.”

The course is far from easy, but Glass appreciates the method of instruction.

“The course is hard work, but Professor da Silva reminds us to be patient, assuring us that, with practice, we’ll get there,” said Glass. “We don’t just read from the book. We work on dialogue and when he recognizes that there is something we are generally struggling with, he seems to tailor the next lesson to help connect the dots for us.”


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