In English or Spanish, money still talks

Businesses welcome foreign-born customers

May 14, 2004|By Meredith Cohn and Stacey Hirsh | Meredith Cohn and Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Customers of Bank of America can request cash in English or Spanish at any of 9,000 automated-teller machines. Johns Hopkins Hospital, which has a division that expressly seeks international patients, provides medical instructions in languages that include Turkish. And some Home Depot stores direct customers to their wares in Spanish as well as English.

Across the country, companies say they want to offer any assistance they can to customers who buy their services and products, whether they speak English or not.

It's not only the right thing to do but also good for business, they say. Workers for whom English is a second language are also good for business.

In spite of Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's comment that fast-food workers in America should speak English, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s follow-up message that multiculturalism is "bunk," corporate leaders view customers and employees who speak little or no English as an increasingly valued segment of the population.

Even Schaefer's agency offers Spanish speakers help with filling out tax forms. His office provided the assistance about a year before a Maryland law went into effect requiring it to offer such help. And one-third of Schaefer's 1,068 employees are minorities, including Hispanics, Asians and a Pacific Islander. A spokesman pointed out that Schaefer, while governor in 1994, vetoed a bill that would have made English the state's official language.

With 32 million people in the United States who have limited English proficiency, according to government estimates, businesses, agencies and others in Maryland and elsewhere are taking more steps then ever to reach out.

"They're consumers," said Roberto Allen, president of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"Even though somebody may not speak English, they have U.S. dollars to spend and they are going to buy goods and services while they're here," he said. "They're part of the economy, and the numbers are growing.

"Businesses are waking up to the fact that the Hispanics are now the largest minority in the country, soon - in the next 40 years or so - to be the largest population segment in the country, and it's a fact of life that many of them are at various stages of speaking English."

The number of Hispanics, Asians and other potentially non-English-speaking minorities around the nation has been growing fast, according to census figures.

In Maryland, the number of Hispanics has jumped more than 80 percent to 227,000 in 2000 from 125,000 in 1990. The number of Asians in Maryland has also grown to 210,929 from 138,148 in the same period.

Some businesses are not just seeking to aid the non-English-speaking customers they already have - they are courting new customers.

Bank of America has an advertising campaign in markets such as Arizona, California and other states with large Hispanic populations to lure customers, who might be using more expensive services to cash checks or send money to relatives in their native countries.

That's on top of the regular bilingual ATMs, 300 bilingual talking ATMs for the visually impaired, branches that are staffed with bilingual workers and a Spanish-language automated telephone service. The bank also accepts the Mexican Consulate Identification Card, known as Matricula Consular, which is used to open new accounts and cash checks.

"I believe Bank of America pioneered Spanish-language ATMs, but it's really grown from there," said Terri Bolling, a company spokeswoman. "It's important customers are spoken to in their language."

At Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore, the staff has gone beyond the federal requirements that they communicate medical information to patients, regardless of national origin, and developed a program to teach medical professionals about different cultures and to offer other services to non-English speakers.

The program, called Johns Hopkins International, was created in 1995 to increase the number of foreign patients. International patients still make up a small percentage of the total served at Hopkins, but many cannot get some services in their home countries. A benefit to Hopkins: They tend to be paying customers.

The biggest users of the services are Spanish and Korean, two populations that are growing in the Baltimore area, said Emilio Williams, a managing director for Johns Hopkins International.

"It's not just about speaking the language," he said. "You have to understand who is the patient. For example, certain cultures wouldn't complain about pain the way we'd complain about pain in the United States. They are less expressive about pain, and the doctor and the nurse need to understand that. It's called cultural competency."

In many instances, speaking the language is not such a life-or-death matter. But it is convenient, helpful or just entertaining for customers - not to mention profitable for business.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport provides travelers with interpreters for some languages.

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