Is learning a foreign language worth it?

Process is doable for producer and helpful for operation if person is willing to put in the time.

February 24, 2021

6 Min Read

Managers of sow farms undergoing PRRS elimination recently asked me to audit elimination protocols to see why the elimination was not progressing as quickly as expected. While the English-speaking staff assured me that they were doing everything correctly, when I pulled aside one of the Spanish-speaking staff and asked her in Spanish about the issue, I felt like I was on a different farm. Not only did I get completely different answers to my questions, but we were also able to brainstorm together to identify several key failures to execute the elimination protocols. If I had not had this conversation, I doubt that I would have been able to identify the farm’s issues as quickly, and we may have taken longer to correct the situation.

Many monolingual farm managers and department heads have lamented to me that they wish they spoke Spanish (or English), but given the demands of a busy work schedule and personal life, is learning another language really worth it for today’s busy producer? The answer will depend on how one defines “learning” a language and how personally motivated a person is. This is probably different for everyone.

Success, like many things in life, comes down to making a plan and executing it consistently. For those interested few, being aware of common pitfalls and myths could save quite a bit of time and effort. For others, luckily many technological solutions can ease communication in situations where learning a language is not practical or desirable.

Learning a language is a journey, not a destination. There will be advances in communication at each level that are helpful even if a learner never achieves “fluency.” Just learning basic barn and pig production-related vocabulary and numbers can go a long way to improving communication. If you’re only interested in “barn Spanish,” there is no rule that you need to spend hours learning vocabulary about other topics. It is important to celebrate wins along the way. If your first goal is to be “fluent,” you will quickly get frustrated. You can’t run a marathon without first running a 5k. Also, just like running, if you stop training, you will quickly get out of shape again and lose the gains you had made.

High school and college foreign language classes are a negative experience for many people, which puts them off learning languages for life. Many assume learning Spanish (or another language) is impossible without immersion or “they just aren’t good at languages.” Foreign language teaching in the U.S. has traditionally suffered from outdated teaching models overly focused on grammar and theory rather than actual communication. While it may seem obvious to people not spoiled by too much formal education, practical skills, including producing a foreign language, require practice.

Although most older speakers will have an accent in languages learned after about age 10 or so, everyone has the natural ability to acquire languages regardless of age. Children across the world learn their mother’s tongue without understanding formal grammar or using a textbook. Acquiring a language is a subconscious process that happens naturally through continuous exposure to a level of language that you can understand, just like your first language.

Modern language teaching has moved towards focusing on comprehensible input —i.e. material that you can understand (even if you understand it only with hand signals and context). With this approach, consuming any material in your target language counts as studying as long as you can understand the gist of it. Any of this input is good, and more is better.

 For adult learners thinking about learning a foreign language, it is important to set realistic expectations. The United States State Department rates languages on a scale of one to four, from easiest to most challenging,  in regards to the difficulty level for native English speakers to achieve “professional working proficiency.” At this level, a person would be able to follow conversations without too much jargon, write emails, read basic work-related articles, etc. The State Department rates Spanish, for example, as a level one language, which requires about 600 hours for the average learner to reach this level of proficiency. Six hundred hours may seem like quite a large investment, and it is, but for a dedicated learner investing about an hour each day, you could reasonably expect to reach working proficiency in about two years.

When learning a foreign language, the total time invested is important, but nearly as important are methods and focus. Remember that reading, writing, and speaking are all separate skills, though they reinforce each other. To get better at speaking, it is important to speak. The most common pitfall I see is people being afraid of making a mistake or sounding funny. Swallow your pride and embrace mistakes as part of the learning process.

Working with Spanish-speaking employees over the years, I have noticed that employees who come from Mexico in the same cohort on the same farm often achieve very different levels of English within a year, based on how willing they are to speak and make mistakes. The employees that speak from day one—even if they only know a few words—will be proficient in about a year. The employees who wait to speak are still waiting to speak a year later.

Forget what your teachers said in high school. Grammar ain’t that important for being understood, and you can always work on polishing it later. Feel free to mess up tenses and conjugations; just communicate. Remember that to learn how to play guitar, it is better to spend an hour playing guitar rather than reading a book about guitars.

If a learner has access to formal classes, that can be helpful in the beginning. However, this should not be a substitute for practicing reading, writing, listening by reading, writing, and listening. Classes should only make up about a quarter of your overall strategy. Online classes such as SpanishPod are a possibility for people in rural areas or those with busy schedules.

For younger producers who may have had some Spanish in high school but “don’t remember anything,” I would recommend spending an hour a day doing what you already enjoy in English—listening to music, watching videos about hobbies like hunting, fishing, etc. The process has to be enjoyable, or even the most motivated person will lose interest.

Given the large investment of time involved, it is very reasonable to assume that many producers will decide they simply are not willing or cannot dedicate the time to learn Spanish or another foreign language. For people without some level of personal interest, I doubt the process is sustainable or worth the investment in time. Having at least one bilingual employee to help translate key information is helpful. Additionally, Google Translate and other translation apps have improved vastly over the years and are great for everyday communication where some minor misunderstandings are OK.

Speaking slowly and clearly and avoiding slang will also go a long way to improving understanding of English from second language employees. Employees who are still afraid to speak English for fear of making a mistake may passively understand English much better than their active speaking ability would indicate. Avoiding making fun of mistakes or accents can help create a safe environment where employees feel comfortable speaking freely in English, even if they are not very proficient yet.

It is also important to know when to call in a professional. For delicate conversations about HR issues, medical, or legal issues, be sure to find a qualified interpreter to make sure nothing gets lost in translation. Nonetheless, for producers who are interested in learning, the process is doable for anyone willing to put in the time and can be a very rewarding endeavor.  

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