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Non-Native Speakers Build Confidence, Break Down Barriers

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PCC Teams With Providence to Help Employees Build Language Skills

by Chris Moore

When Dina Ozeruga came to the United States from the Ukraine ten years ago, she didn’t speak much English. An eager learner, Dina signed up for English classes whenever she could, but finding the time and opportunity to practice her conversational skills was difficult.

Two years after her arrival, Dina landed a job in the Environmental Services Department at Providence Hospital. As her work skills and experience grew, she was promoted to night shift supervisor. Every evening, Dina’s crew of 34 employees cleans offices, hallways, waiting rooms, and nursing stations throughout the busy medical center. Like their supervisor, many of these employees learned English as adults after immigrating to the United States. They come from all over the world, and speak many languages – from Russian, Chinese, and Romanian to Korean, Vietnamese, and Spanish.

This rich cultural mix creates communication challenges for everyone. Non-natives may hesitate to speak up for fear of making a mistake. English-speaking employees may assume this reticence shows an unwillingness to learn. Relationships may become strained and tense.

To help break down these barriers to effective communication, Providence invited Portland Community College to develop a pilot program for teaching English to non-native speakers with a special focus on workplace communication. Eric Johnson, human resources assistant with Providence Academy, and Bonnie Starkey, manager of training and development in PCC’s Customized Workforce Training program, worked together to get the program going.

The development team began by holding focus groups and other meetings with department managers, supervisors, non-native English speakers, their English-speaking co-workers, and nursing staff.

"We wanted to find out what the communication issues were and where people were struggling the most," Starkey says. "We learned that all sides were very eager to communicate, but they didn’t know how to make it happen."

As a foundation for the program, instructors Diana Woll and Catherine Murphy selected a textbook with sections on everyday communication, following directions, talking about work, and explaining things in a variety of ways. They also used hospital manuals on safety, department procedures, and healthcare topics.

"The classes centered on workplace communication," Murphy says. "But for many employees, learning these basic skills will make their lives easier outside the workplace as well."

Of the 60 employees who completed voluntary assessments of their English-language skills, more than three-quarters enrolled in introductory, intermediate, and advanced level classes. Between August and October 1999, the classes met twice a week for 90 minutes. Sessions were scheduled from 3:30 to 5 p.m. to allow both day and evening shift workers to participate.

As employees gathered to learn vocabulary and practice conversation, their English skills began to improve. But something else happened too: They began to feel more confident.

"It’s so exciting to see the change in people as their self-esteem grows," Johnson says. "The more confident you are, the better you do your job and the more able you are to take on additional responsibility."

Relationships got stronger as well. Employees from opposite sides of the world are building friendships as they practice conversation together. And their English-speaking co-workers are understanding ‘ and being understood ‘ better than ever.

"Employees who took the classes are coming in to talk to me more that they ever did before," says Karen Legasse, director of Environmental Services. "If they do have an issue or concern, they’re less likely to keep it to themselves. That helps everyone feel more confident that things are working well."

In late October, employees, teachers, supervisors, and administrators gathered to celebrate with 33 program graduates. Everyone involved expressed their delight with the outcome, and plans are underway to make the program a regular offering at Providence. "We need more teachers, more tutors, more classes," she says. "The only way to remember and improve English is to practice every day," says Ozeruga.

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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