Breaking down language barriers in foodservice

Offering training materials in multiple languages can help break down language barriers in foodservice, and language learning opportunities can assist with employee retention and promote cultural awareness that can strengthen a restaurant’s entire team.

To bridge the gap between languages, a glossary of 50 or so common words and their translations can offer a strong foundation, according to Rosario Gonzalez, who manages translations for the National Restaurant Association, overseeing the translation of the association’s content into more than 25 different languages.

Take care with translations

Including visuals in training materials is always recommended, but Gonzalez said images are especially important for translated materials. Regional nuances across one language can mean there are multiple translations for one word. For example, the word for a drinking straw “is actually different in every Spanish-speaking country,” she said.

When creating longer manuals or training programs, it’s important to “find a translation vendor...that you trust and build a relationship with them,” said Gonzalez, who oversaw the translation of all training materials and curricula used by McDonald’s before going to work with the National Restaurant Association. Finding a translation company that is well-versed in foodservice terminology and working with them for all translations helps ensure a consistent, high-quality end product -- no matter what language it’s in.

Providing training materials in a language that employees can understand obviously has practical benefits for learning the ins and outs of their current job, but having translated materials can also open new career pathways in foodservice.

Language education opens doors for employees

The lack of bartender training materials in Spanish has been an “unsolvable, irreconcilable problem for a long time,” bar manager Aaron Polsky told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. While working to train a barback whose first language is Spanish to be a bartender, Polsky struggled with the language barrier and couldn’t find any training programs in Spanish. He reached out to a friend at Pernod Ricard, which produces the BarSmarts bar training program, and found that a Spanish version of the popular online program was already in the works.

“Now we finally have a really solid first step for people who are not fluent in English to be able to be competent, professional bartenders and feel confident in what they are doing,” Polsky said.

In addition to offering job training in more languages, a growing number of restaurants are taking the next step and offering opportunities for staff members to learn English as a second language.

In New York City, Tacombi in the West Village offers employees classes through a program called ESL Works. The courses are part of an effort to “help to build a more equal playing field” for the company’s non–English speakers, Tacombi owner and CEO Dario Wolos told Grub Street. McDonald’s offers an English as a second language course to employees who are non-native English speakers called English Under the Arches.

Both the McDonald’s program and ESL Works are conducted in-person, but online courses can be just as effective for employees who are dedicated to putting in the time, Gonzalez said.

Panda Restaurant Group makes language learning software from Rosetta Stone available to the 30,000 employees who work in its 2,000 restaurants.

“We don’t want language -- English-speaking in particular -- to be an obstacle for an associate to do his or her best. We don’t want that to be something that will deter them from achieving greater things at our store and also in their lives,” Kevin Kwan, technology manager of learning and development for the parent company of Panda Express, Panda Inn and Hibachi San said in a story published by Employee Benefit News.

English is the primary focus of the courses Panda offers, but “with Rosetta Stone being so versatile with so many languages, as our company expands, we also expect them to learn languages other than English,” said Alvin Tang, the restaurant company’s learning and development coordinator.

Corporate language learning is on the rise and the corporate online language learning market in the US is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of more than 16% through 2021, according to a report from Technavio. English and Spanish tutorials are most popular with US businesses, but demand is rising for the Chinese dialect Mandarin, according to Shari Hofer, Rosetta Stone’s vice president of marketing.

Whether it’s learning English or a different language, development opportunities like these can go a long way toward building staff loyalty. “If an employee feels that they are being valued -- that their employee actually values them as a person and cares about their development -- they tend to stay in an organization longer,” Gonzalez said.

Exchange of language, culture builds better teams

Another way restaurant companies can show employees that they are valuable members of the team is by going beyond a common language to achieve deeper cultural awareness.

Managers “have to consider the cultural differences, as well as the academic levels and backgrounds of each person that they have working with them. The other thing that is also very important is they have to take the time to get to know their people, and don’t assume that because someone looks Hispanic, that they don’t speak English or are a certain nationality,” Gonzalez said.

“Take the time to learn a little about the culture of that person. Getting to know a little about their country and even trying to learn some words in that specific language helps a lot.”

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