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Washington Trust Bank staff enroll in Spanish class

An introductory Spanish class at CR Languages. The language class offers five Spanish classes ranging in difficulty; each meeting once per week. Photo by Glenn Landberg.

An introductory Spanish class at CR Languages. The language school offers five Spanish classes ranging in difficulty; each meets once per week. Photo by Glenn Landberg.

An employee’s experience with Spanish lessons through a Boise language school has caught the eye of Washington Trust Bank, which is now encouraging more workers to enroll.

Alex Westfall, vice president at Washington Trust’s downtown Boise branch, enrolled in Spanish lessons through CR Languages in Boise for personal reasons. But after going to the manager of his branch, Brian Gonzalez, for help with his homework, the two wondered if more employees shouldn’t take the lessons.

Now, five employees from the downtown branch are more than 10 weeks into a 16-week Spanish course and more Washington Trust employees are planning to enroll in August.

“For me personally it was just another tool for my tool belt so I would know the basic social etiquette — how to say hi and how are you doing,” Westfall said. “I think any time you go out of your way to make your customers feel more comfortable it shows you care.”

Gonzalez said the bank is responding to strong growth in Idaho’s Hispanic population.

Hispanics accounted for 31 percent of Idaho’s growth between 2010 and 2014. In that time, the Hispanic population grew by 12 percent to about 200,000 residents while the rest of the state’s population grew by 3 percent, according to the University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy.

In response to the growth in Idaho’s Hispanic population, many Idaho businesses are trying to hire more Hispanic workers, and also Spanish-speaking workers in general.

“People feel more comfortable making financial decisions if they can have them explained in their native language,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez and Westfall found four other Washington Trust employees who were interested in learning Spanish and prepared a report for Washington Trust’s HR department using personal experiences and information from the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs to detail why the branch needed to add Spanish speakers. The bank agreed to pay the $3,150 bill for Westfall and the four other employees to take the class.

“Out of all non-English speaking households in the Treasure Valley, 75 percent speak Spanish,” Gonzalez said. “When we approached HR with this, they loved the idea.”

Although both of his parents speak Spanish, Gonzalez was discouraged from learning the language as a child and never became fluent.

“We have our existing customers and one of the things we try to do is call them to make sure everything is going well, but when I would talk to one whose native language wasn’t English, I could always tell they weren’t quite comfortable speaking to me,” he said.

Having staff capable of speaking Spanish will give the bank an edge, Gonzalez said.

Brian Gonzalez

Brian Gonzalez

“Downtown you have every Northwest bank in a six-block radius and I think this is a good way for us to separate ourselves from the competition,” he said.

The bank is now trying to get at least one employee from each of its Treasure Valley branches to attend. Eight employees plan to take it, said Katy Wagnon, spokeswoman for Washington Trust Bank.

“It’s a big commitment,” she said. “They take classes at night and challenge each other to speak only Spanish during the day, but our customers are really responding to it.”

Gonzalez said the course features a lot of work, including a novel to read. He gives employees time during the day to work on it.

The Washington Trust employees who are taking the class, or will soon take it, come from all lines of the bank including commercial, sales and front office staff.

“It has been nice to see the moral boost this has caused around here,” Gonzalez said. “The employees all enjoy talking to each other in Spanish and pushing each other to do better, and, as bankers, I don’t think they expected the bank to invest in them in this way.”

Alex Westfall

Alex Westfall

Westfall said he’s already learning.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to have se habla Español written by my name, but I think between us we can make someone feel warm and welcomed,” Westfall said. “The goal is to elevate this to the point where we can have those meaty conversations.

“It’s nothing revolutionary,” he said. “I think in today’s world you are always trying to build camaraderie and show people you care about their culture.”

CR Languages CR Languages in Downtown Boise offers Spanish, French, Russian, Portuguese, Mandarin, German and Italian classes at different times of the year.

Spanish lessons cost $630 and will be offered next in August. The school splits the lessons into five different classes based on difficulty. Most of Washington Trust’s employees are starting in the intro class, but a few who had Spanish lessons in high school or college are starting in an intermediate class. One employee who moved to Idaho from Florida jumped straight to the most advanced class.

The classes teach reading, writing, speaking and comprehension, and are offered to small groups and  individuals.

About Benton Alexander Smith

Benton Alexander Smith is a reporter for the Idaho Business Review, covering the Idaho Legislature, new business, technology and financial services.