English-challenged work force: A personal take on bridging the gap

Posted by Ellie Rivera on Mon, 6/15/2015

My first language was Spanish.  I was taught at a very early age that the language of our home was Spanish and English was to be saved for school.  That is, I was the first mainland-born member of my Puerto Rican family and my parents feared losing our cultural identity during their 1970’s adaptation of their new, big New York City life.  I remember watching novelas with my Mami and sneaking a peak at Romper Room, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Needless to say, I was alienated at school because I spoke one language comfortably and the other was starting to blossom in my mind and mouth.  However, food made everything come together like an interior designer, finding just the right colors to mix in a room. 

There, in the Northwest corner of the Bronx that meets with Westchester County and had an amazingly eclectic group of immigrants, I learned to savor and appreciate the varied people that made up and improved my community.  I enjoyed arroz con pollo, but I also loved chicken wings and white rice from the local Chinese take out.  I had egg creams at the Korean Magazine shop & lunch counter, while I was getting my Teen Beat.  I drooled over pizza slices from Silvio’s, Pugsley’s or My Place pizza, the dynamic Italian trio that forever blazed my love of all Italian dishes.  If Mami decided she was on strike in the kitchen, we’d order from Lena’s – her mofongo or the pernil tacos, with a side of morcilla (pork sausage) with the white rice was always a great goto in the smallest full service Spanish cuisine restaurant north of Fordham Road.

These days I’m fascinated by numbers that make the data reports on the restaurant industry.  The National Restaurant Association reports that anywhere from 9 – 17% of workers are foreign born who become front of house or management and there are 24 – 44% from food preparation to chefs that are foreign born.  Over 37% of these, speak a language other English at home.  It seems to me that there were would be several advantages at developing these English as a Second Language employees professional skills, which would include mastery of their English work vernacular.

QSR Magazine quoted that 20% of quick service sales are coming from the Latino population and restaurants such as Jack-in-the-Box, Papa John’s, Starbucks, Sonic, Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s, and Chipotle, along with casual-dining chains Chili’s, Denny’s, and IHOP are dedicating resources to Spanish engagement.

Wouldn’t it make sense that workers should reflect this purchase power-wielding force?  If language development practices were integrated into daily practices it would build on the diversity of the customer as equally as the staff. 

Here are some suggestions:

  • English Programs create a deepening of loyalty from the worker to the employer who provides the doorway to advancement.
    • Possible practices here can include using pictures on varied equipment or picture guides of how to prepare items, Ex. Construction of a burger at ANY of the fast-food chains
    • Partnering with local community based organizations and schools of continuing education.  Promising interviews at the successful completion of a program or arranging tuition reimbursement for would be supervisors or managers.
    • Using mentors that are responsible for following up with initial training and having on the job shadowing.  Constant saturation in the English language allows for the ease of learning and mastering of the language.
    • Having a language resource library available for workers – owning and lending Rosetta Stone or any learning CD/Book program
    • Subscribing to online programs which can be free or low cost based on the area of your business.

Other possible benefits:

  • Culturally, many foreigners regard their native countries with such respect that they carry themselves as ambassadors of that country and thereby, try to uphold ideals of work ethic and dedication that would be reflective of their people.
  • New Hires, adult immigrants, carry experience.  Where they lack the mastery of the language, many times these potential candidates carry educational credentials that simply are not observed in this country but are well respected oversees.

The greatest memory I have of my little corner of childhood is when I would see my newer, English-challenged neighbors working deliveries for one of the local pizza shops and eventually working their way to pizza makers.  One gentleman in particular worked his path this way and was able to saturate himself enough in the language that was often given the management of the shop.  It is worth noting, that this shop that took a chance on the English Challenged is the only of the pizza shops standing after close to 40 years.


Ellie Rivera is a Customer Success Specialist for WyckWyre, leading the way on the team's effort to help bridge the gap between non-English-speaking workers and job opportunities throughout the U.S. restaurant industry. Previously, Rivera was a professor of English for Adult Degree Students, Adult Basic Education Students and English Language Learners of all ages at the City University of New York Research Foundation from 2005 – 2014.  She received certificates from the Literacy Assistance Center of New York in Common Core Curriculum and TASC Exam preparation for Adults.