Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I learned to speak Spanish as a baby; I learned English later, when my family immigrated to New York City. My mother spoke both languages at home, so I grew up bilingual. Nevertheless, my first encounters with construction-site Spanish made me feel as if I had traveled to a foreign country. This was because many of the techniques used in our building industry — including wood framing, vinyl siding, and drywall — are unique to the United States. To facilitate job-site conversation, Spanish-speaking workers in the U.S. have had to develop local words and expressions that can't be found in conventional Spanish/English dictionaries, making it tough for native Spanish-speakers to understand one another.
It can be even more difficult for an English speaker to learn job-site Spanish. Although you may have aced high school Spanish, I'm sure you never learned vocabulary like rapear (dry wrap this opening) and joistear (roll joists). But if you want to communicate effectively with this rapidly growing segment of the American work force, you'll need to learn the basics of the Spanish language and train your ear to understand the local construction dialect.
Why bother? Consider the numbers: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, persons of "Hispanic origin" make up one of the fastest growing worker groups in the U.S. Their number — 13.6 million in 2000 — has increased 65 percent since 1980, a rate of growth four times that of the "non-Hispanic" work force. Spanish is the native language of nearly 18 percent of all construction workers in the U.S.; in New Mexico, Texas, and Southern California, almost half of the home-building work force speaks Spanish.
Learning the language and culture of your co-workers and employees — and perhaps your next boss — can improve your crew's productivity and job-site safety while giving you an opportunity to build new friendships. In other words, knowing Spanish adds a practical and versatile tool to your toolbox.
Developing an Ear
You don't have to memorize verb endings and noun genders to begin building an understanding of a new language. Just do what babies do when they learn to talk: Listen. Tuning in to a Spanish-language radio station on your way to work and discovering music that you enjoy with Latin lyrics can start developing your ear. Watching Spanish-language television can add another building block; the visual cues will help you decipher the language in context. Just by opening your ears, you'll allow your brain to do what humans do best — decipher speech.
Within a couple of months, you'll be able to catch the drift of basic sentences and perhaps begin peppering your job-site banter with Spanish words and phrases. Of course, fluency will take a lot longer, but for most of us, that level of mastery isn't necessary. Your objective isn't fluency, but practical communication.
As you become familiar with the cadence of Spanish, you'll begin to better understand the broken English of heavily accented Latinos. This means your ear is recognizing new speech patterns. Even when you don't understand the words, you'll have a sense of the conversation's meaning when you hear Spanish dialogue, and you'll start to distinguish familiar sounds and expressions and correlate them with tone and body language. By instinct, your ear will lead you to a fuzzy but slowly clarifying sense of comprehension — and your tongue will follow closely behind.
Developing Your Tongue
Just as babies learn language by listening, they also learn by babbling. This is tough for adults, who feel embarrassed by tongue-tied attempts to pronounce foreign words. But there's no choice: You have to practice your Spanish aloud.
When I coach someone in conversational Spanish, I don't teach them a random assortment of words. I start by teaching them the tricky aspects of Spanish pronunciation: the five vowel and consonant sounds that differentiate Latin-based languages from English.
While English vowels have multiple sounds, Spanish vowels have only one. For example, the "a" in ape sounds different from the "a" in apple; the "u" in umbrella sounds different from the "u" in duty. In Spanish, vowels sound dry by comparison. Latinos always pronounce the letter "a" as ‘ah,' and the letter "u" as ‘oo.' Nothing distinguishes an English accent as much as the lilting vowels, so try to learn the Latin vowels: ‘Ah, eh, ee, oh, oo.' In Spanish, a vowel sounds the same regardless of context: taco, pato, coco. The "o" never changes.
Next, tackle the five characteristically Spanish consonants. These include "h," the easiest to learn because it's always silent, as in hola (hello), pronounced ‘ola.' The Spanish "j" sounds like the English "h," as in jalapeños. The double "ll" in martillo (hammer) sounds like a "y" in English: "mar-ti-yo." Spanish has one letter not used in English, an "n" with a squiggle on top — the ñ. The weather phenomenon known as El Niño offers a good example of how to pronounce this letter.
The double "rr" is the only one tough to learn unless you know how to trill your tongue, but if you can't roll your r's, it's okay to stick with the English pronunciation. For example, you could ask for a sierra (saw) by pronouncing the word "see-air-rah," and I'm reasonably confident a Latino colleague won't hand you a martillo instead.
Don't spend too much time trying to sound like a native; you don't have to become fluent to communicate effectively. If you come close, everyone will understand you. To help you gain proficiency, there are more than 500 different Spanish audio courses on cassette tape or CD to choose from, which allow you to practice in the privacy of your own pickup (see sidebar, "Resources for Learning Job-Site Spanish," beginning on page2).
Lost in Translation
Once you start exploring Spanish, you'll eventually find yourself in a sounds-alike/means-something-different situation.
For example, tell a co-worker you feel embarazado, and he or she may blush, too, given you just declared you feel pregnant. The correct word in Spanish would have been avergonzado. To avert future embarrassment, it pays to know a few of the translation pitfalls up-front.
I recently fell into an obvious lost-in-translation error despite knowing better. In Spanish, the phrase no vá doesn't mean something new, but rather "does not go," or "does not run" (it wasn't a Latino who named the Chevy Nova). While pointing at boxes of Novabrik, a mortarless masonry product, I instructed my siding guys where to install it on the house. When I returned to the job later in the day, I found that they had specifically avoided these areas. When I questioned my crew leader, he asked me what I had been drinking, since I had given specific orders that the product I pointed to "does not go" (no vá) there.
Other common mistakes include asking your crew to follow dirección, which refers not to instructions or orders, but to a street address (the proper word is instrucción). You might ask a co-worker to mark a stud layout using the word marca, which actually means a brand name, such as Ford or Chevy. On the other hand, el marco would refer to the door jamb. You wouldn't aplicar for a job, since this refers to smear or spread as in glue or paint; the correct term for soliciting employment would be solicitar.
Even more subtle, you may find yourself giving offense when you don't mean to. Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Costa Ricans all consider themselves to be Americans, a term that people from the U.S. sometimes reserve for themselves (better to say Estadounidense, or United States-ian). You will also find that Bolivians, Nicaraguans, Argentineans, and all other Latin Americans prefer to be known by their country of origin than by the generic "Hispanic." In fact, "Hispanic" technically refers to those born on the island of Hispaniola, which comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic. If you need to use a generic term to refer to your Spanish-speaking colleagues, call them Latinos.
Finally, because Spanish speakers come from so many countries, you'll find that while they all speak Spanish, they don't all sound alike. Just as English varies from New England to New Orleans and from Ireland to Australia, Spanish varies even more. This means that expressions you learn on a job site in New York may not translate in Miami. What's more, what you learn on the job site usually represents a mix of provincial Spanish and regional English, especially when English words do not have an easy one-word translation. For example, instead of saying El muro en seco, which takes too long, most Spanish-speaking workers will say dry-vol (drywall). But a Latino working on the East Coast, where many people still refer to drywall as Sheetrock, might say el shee-ro.
Confusing? Welcome to Spanglish, soon to become the most widely spoken language on job sites across the country. As you develop your skills, keep in mind that what you want to learn is not so much the language as the means of communicating across the language barrier. In addition to words and phrases, take full advantage of facial expressions, hand gestures, and tone of voice. A friendly smile, a laugh, and the occasional scowl translate with no dictionary required.
Fernando Pagés Ruizis a building contractor in Lincoln, Neb.