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Culturally Conversant:  Lowe's Managers Immersed in Spanish

By Amy E. Kelly | Published: December 19, 2014

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of the Concordia Magazine.

Spanish Language Village instructors give directions
during an immersion course for Lowe's managers. 

The dining room at El Lago del Bosque, the Spanish Language Village, was lively with banter as food was passed around the tables. Conversation ranged from the ingredients in the Peruvian dish being served to what was happening with each person’s family. Comfortable topics, all spoken in Spanish.

It was an amazing change from just a few days earlier when the group, all management staff from Lowe’s, the home improvement company, arrived at Concordia Language Villages for a Spanish immersion experience specifically designed for them. As people arrived at the site or were picked up from the airport, few words were said. Communication during the program was to be in Spanish and the new class was anxious.

“The program was initiated by Lowe’s regional distribution center executives because they had some specific training needs,” says Martin Graefe, Concordia Language Villages’ senior director.

Lowe’s quest to find the right kind of training for their managers started in Central America. The company, however, quickly discovered it needed something in the states and it couldn’t be just language classes. That’s when the organization approached Concordia Language Villages after researching various options. The Lowe’s request created a prime opportunity for the Language Villages to expand its offerings.

“The rudiments of how you learn a language are the same no matter the age,” says Christine Schulze, vice president for Concordia Language Villages. “We are using our full pedagogy while incorporating techniques to address learning styles and motivators that correlate to the adult student.”

The program started five years ago and now approximately 120 Lowe’s staff members participate in the immersion experience annually.

Starting the program took a lot of planning. Lowe’s executives visited an established adult immersion program in Bemidji, Minn. Dr. Kirsten Addison, the year-round Spanish Language Village dean, along with another Spanish Language Village staff member, a native speaker, did on-site visits at two Lowe’s distribution centers, finding out what management needed to learn to create an even better work environment.

“We spent hours on the distribution center floor and I took copious notes,” says Addison. “We spoke Spanish to the employees who also spoke Spanish and asked them their concerns and frustrations, as well as asking the English-speaking employees the same questions.”

The pair gathered details on company culture, vocabulary, cultural norms and even nonverbal communication, such as gestures, that could cause misunderstandings. They then applied the information to the new program. Attendees answered a pre-class survey on Spanish proficiency. Staff members also assessed them once they arrived so they would be placed with other class members who would help each person succeed.

Immersion instruction means everything is in the 
target language and participants experience
what they are speaking about. 

Initially, with little chatter on the bus from the airport, some of the attendees thought it would be a very quiet week. John Gann, an assistant operations manager from Texas, noted that the initial experience of arriving built an amazing empathy in him.

“Coming here and getting immersed as soon as you walk off the bus, you can almost put yourself in the shoes of the team members who don’t speak English when they walk through our door,” Gann says. “Many of our team members want to learn English as much as we want to learn Spanish. And for us to be able to communicate in at least bits and pieces is huge.”

The learning happens in all kinds of formal and informal settings, small-group intensive language classes, role play, engaging in Spanish music, playing football (American soccer), language classes, culture presentations, cooking demonstrations and meals. Every activity is designed to teach participants vocabulary or cultural knowledge that would be useful during their workday, Addison says. For instance, participants played checkers one afternoon. In addition to being culturally authentic, the game also taught participants vocabulary for directions, language that proves useful when working in a large warehouse.

The Texas regional distribution center where Robbie Tigert is an operations coach is more than a million square feet in size. Vocabulary learned in the immersion program is immediately useful, he says.

“We’ve gone through a lot of scenarios in our classroom that relates directly to our workforce and related to our operations,” Tigert says.

Tigert and Gann have participated in the program twice and may return to take the second level next year. The second program advances language and runs more situational simulations. One of the buildings is even transformed to look like a portion of the distribution center so the employees can practice their new skills in a setting that mirrors their workplace.

Tigert’s team, many of whom are native Spanish speakers, supported him when he attended his last session and he knows they are going to keep him active with his Spanish this time, too.

“They didn’t even offer me an opportunity to back off, to not study some,” Tigert says. “As soon as I got back, I asked them to help me stay on my game, to ask me questions every day. And knowing that I went through the effort to come up here was also a big deal to them.”

Jennifer Lopez, a human resources manager at Lowe’s flatbed distribution center in Centralia, Wash., says the entire immersion process has been a wonderful way to learn. She values the insight of all the staff, most of whom are native speakers from various parts of Central America and South America. And while the days were long, she enjoyed the challenge. And Village staff know that’s part of the draw.

“The draw for Lowe’s, and hopefully other companies in the future, is that it’s intensive,” says Graefe. “It’s an ideal setup for accelerated learning because you are there 24/7. It’s a full day from when you get up to when you go to bed. In government language, it is iso-immersion.”

And that’s a phrase Graefe has heard a lot as Concordia Language Villages has done similar programming with special forces and civil affairs units of the military. Iso- immersion sessions, or language training in isolation from the English language, have been one to three weeks long in Chinese, Arabic and French. Graefe says that while the military has one of the best language training programs in the country, they have used the Villages program as a culminating piece. During one program at the French Language Village, a civil affairs team used the culturally authentic Cameroonian hut for a simulation of the visits they would need to do in tribal communities.

“The government has gained increased understanding that language and cultural competencies are critical skills and one of the most important tools contributing to the success of a soldier,” Graefe says.

Schulze says there is room for others to apply this learning model. She says  representatives of the college and the Villages  have had conversations with agribusiness companies, as well as regional medical systems, about immersion learning for employees. With an eye toward opportunity, the Russian Language Village was designed specifically with adults in mind, as much as for the youth participants.

“We tie language learning to lifelong learning. The culturally authentic Village sites on Turtle River Lake constitute an international retreat center with a lot of capacity to accommodate adult learners during the academic year,” Schulze says.

And as Lowe’s employees attest, just like summer youth villagers who build lifelong friendships with peers from around the country, an exciting off-shoot of the program is getting to know people from other parts of the country and having a new support system in colleagues they probably would not have met otherwise.

“When opportunities arise at our facility, we can reach out to a new work-related network,” Gann says. 

Juan Carlos Elizondo

For more information on customized corporate training programs offered through Concordia Language Villages:

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