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This article originally appeared in the Delaware Business Ledger.

by Beverly Stewart

Compressed ESLWe all know that the mid-Atlantic, and indeed the entire U.S., is becoming more diverse. In 2003 nearly 12 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born. The 2000 Census found that nearly 18 percent of the population over age 5 speaks a language other than English at home, and close to half of them reported that they speak English “less than very well.”

That language gap offers both challenges and opportunities to business owners. Foreign-born workers will account for about half of the growth in America’s working-age population between now and 2015, and an even greater amount in later years. Yet a survey by The Conference Board, a nonprofit business research organization, found that most companies do not offer English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, even though many of those companies report that they employ English-deficient employees.

Time, cost and logistics are some of the reasons companies have hesitated in the past to provide ESL instruction to their immigrant employees, but those challenges seem small compared to the benefits that will accrue from employee fluency–and the hazards of not taking action.

According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the work-related death rate for foreign-born Hispanic workers is 6 per 100,000–significantly higher than the rate for American-born Hispanics, blacks and whites, which was less than 4 per 100,000. While Hispanics tend to hold more high-risk jobs than other racial groups, researchers say that language and literacy barriers also may be factors in the higher death rate.

Some companies rely on bilingual supervisors to bridge the communication gap, but interpretation can be time-consuming, and the potential for misunderstandings remains. Besides, when only some of a company’s employees can communicate with each other, it can feel as if there are two workforces instead of one company working toward the same goals.

When companies provide ESL instruction for their employees, on the other hand, their investment pays off long-term in safety and efficiency. The companies benefit in other ways, too, as morale and employee retention both improve. We all need to feel as if we “belong,” and bridging a language gap makes great strides in this direction. It should come as no surprise that employees feel more loyal to a company that invests in their future.

White Oak Landscape Management in Centreville, DE, and Burris Logistics in Elkton, MD, are two local companies that have provided onsite ESL classes to their employees.

Some companies take language learning a step further and offer foreign-language classes to their English-speaking employees. Not only do they learn to communicate in a second language, but also the challenge of learning a new language makes the English-speaking employees more understanding and supportive of the ESL learners.

Employees who speak a foreign language can help a business reach out to the entire community. More than 22 percent of people who live in the Northeast were born outside the U.S. That translates into more than one in five potential clients and customers. It just makes sense to maximize your customer base by making it easier for people to use your services and buy your goods.

While the immigrant population in the U.S. speaks dozens of languages, Spanish is the most common. That means that simply by learning Spanish, a business owner and his or her employees can reach a large percentage of their non-English-speaking potential customers.

The ESL and foreign-language classes offered by schools, churches and community organizations can be good, affordable options. Many of our clients, however, found that their employees were too tired after the workday to attend evening classes regularly. In addition, they sometimes felt intimidated in the classroom setting. Bringing the language instruction to your business site makes it easy and convenient for employees to attend classes. Learning together in a company-sponsored setting also encourages language learners to practice their new skills with each other and gives them the courage to use the new language in the workplace.

As business owners, we should embrace language instruction as an opportunity to grow our businesses and to help our employees thrive.

For more information, please visit Back to Basics website at http://www.BacktoBasicsLearning.com

For 25 years, Back to Basics has been recognized as the area’s undisputed leader in one-on-one tutoring. In addition, the firm offers a unique Delaware private school for grades K-12 and a Private Business and Trade School for adults. Back to Basics is the 2010 Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics.

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