arrowHome arrow Articles arrow Habla Espanol? Saturday, 17 April 2021  
A Message From The Author
Case Studies
Architects & Engineers
Recommended Readings
Contact Us
Free Affordability Checklist
Buy The Book
Press Room
In The News
Books Floorplans

List All Products

ConstructionCalc: The POWER TOOLS of Structural Software!

Habla Espanol?

By: Fernando Pages Ruiz

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I learned to speak Spanish as a baby; I learned English later, when my family immigrated to New York City. My mother spoke both languages at home, so I grew up bilingual. Nevertheless, my first encounters with construction-site Spanish made me feel as if I had traveled to a foreign country.


This was because many of the techniques used in our building industry – including wood framing, vinyl siding, and drywall – are unique to the United States. To facilitate jobsite conversation, Spanish-speaking workers in the U.S. have had to develop local words and expressions that can’t be found in conventional Spanish/English dictionaries, making it tough for native Spanish-speakers to understand one another.

It can be even more difficult for an English speaker to learn job-site Spanish. Although you may have aced high school Spanish, I’m sure you never learned vocabulary like ‘rapear’ (dry wrap this opening) and ‘joistear’ (roll joists). But if you want to communicate effectively with this rapidly-growing segment of the American work force, you’ll need to learn the basics of the Spanish language and train your ear to understand the local construction dialect.

Why bother? Consider the numbers: According to Bureau of Labor statistics, persons of Hispanic origin make up one of the fastest growing worker groups in the United States. Their number – 13.6 million in 2000 – has increased 65 percent since 1980, a rate of growth four times that for the non-Hispanic work force. Spanish is the native language of nearly 18 percent of all construction workers in the United States; in New Mexico, Texas, and Southern California, almost half of the homebuilding workforce speaks Spanish. Learning the language and culture of your coworkers, employees, and perhaps your next boss can improve your crew’s productivity and job-site safety while offering you an opportunity to build new friendships. In other words, Spanish adds a practical and versatile tool to your toolbox.

Developing an Ear
You don’t have to memorize verb endings and noun genders to start building an understanding of a new language. Just do what babies do when learning to talk: Listen. Tuning in to a Spanish language radio station on your way to work and discovering music that you enjoy with Latin lyrics can start developing your ear. Watching Spanish language television can add another building block; the visual cues will help you decipher the language in context. By just opening your ears, you’ll allow your brain to do what humans do best -- decipher speech.

Within a couple of months, you’ll be able to catch the drift of basic sentences and perhaps begin peppering your job-site banter with Spanish words and phrases. Of course, fluency will take a lot longer, but for most of us, it’s not necessary. After all, your objective isn’t fluency, but practical communication.

As you become familiar with the cadence of Spanish, you’ll begin to better understand the broken English of heavily accented Latinos. This means your ear is recognizing new speech patterns. Even when you don’t understand the words, you’ll have a sense of the conversation’s meaning when you hear Spanish dialogue, and you’ll start to distinguish familiar sounds and expressions and correlate them with tone and body language. By instinct, your ear will lead you into a fuzzy but slowly clarifying sense of comprehension, and then your tongue will follow closely behind.  

Developing your tongue
Just as babies learn language by listening, they learn even more by babbling. This is tough for adults, who feel embarrassed by tongue-tied attempts to pronounce foreign words. But there’s no choice; you have to practice your Spanish aloud.

When I coach someone in conversational Spanish, I don’t teach them a random assortment of words. I start by teaching them the tricky aspects of Spanish pronunciation: the five vowel- and consonant-sounds that differentiate Latin-based languages from English.
While English vowels have multiple sounds, Spanish vowels only have one. For example, the “a” in ape sounds different that the “a” in apple; the “u” in umbrella sounds different from the “u” in duty. In Spanish, vowels sound dry by comparison; they have only one tone. Latinos pronounce the letter “a” as ‘ah’, and the letter “u” as ‘oo’. Nothing distinguishes the English accent so much as the lilting vowels, so try to learn the Latin vowels: ‘Ah, eh, ee, oh, oo.’ In Spanish, a vowel always sounds the same regardless of context: taco, pato, coco; the “o” never changes.

Next, tackle the five characteristically Spanish consonants. These include “h,” the easiest to learn because it’s always silent, as in ‘hola’, (hello), pronounced ‘ola.’ The Spanish “j” sounds like the English “h,” as in ‘jalapeños’.  The double “ll” in ‘martillo’ (hammer) sounds like a “y” in English, or “mar-ti-yo.” Spanish has one letter not used in English, an “n” with a squiggle on top – the ñ – called and pronounced “enie,” as in Enya, the Irish vocalist, appears in the weather phenomena known as “el niño.”

The double “rr” is the only one tough to learn unless you know how to trill your tongue, but if can’t roll your r’s, it’s okay to stick with the English pronunciation. For example, you could ask for a ‘sierra’ (saw) by pronouncing the word “see-air-rah”, and I’m reasonably confident a Latino colleague won’t hand you a ‘martillo’ instead.

Don’t spend too much time trying to sound like a native; you don’t have to become fluent to communicate effectively. If you come close, everyone will understand you. To help gain proficiency, there are over 500 different Spanish audio courses on cassette tape or CD to choose from, allowing you to practice in the privacy of your own pickup. (See SBR: Resources for Learning Job-site Spanish)

Lost in Translation
Once you start exploring Spanish, you’ll eventually find yourself in a sound-alike/don’t mean anything-alike situation. For example, tell a co-worker you feel ‘embarazado,’ and he or she may blush too, given you just declared you feel pregnant. The correct word in Spanish would have been “avergonzado.” To save you from future embarrassment, it pays to know a few of the translation pitfalls up front.

I recently fell into an obvious lost-in-translation error, despite knowing better. In Spanish, the word ‘nova’ doesn’t mean something new, but rather “does not go,” or “does not run” (it wasn’t a Latino who named the Chevy Nova). While pointing at boxes of NovaBrik, a mortarless masonry product, I instructed my siding guys where to install it on the house. When I returned to the job later in the day, I found that they had specifically avoided these areas. When I questioned my crew leader, he asked me what I had been drinking, since I had given specific orders that the product I pointed to “does not go” (no va) there.
Other common mistakes include asking your crew to follow ‘direcciónes’, which does not mean instruction or orders, but rather a street address (the proper word is ‘instrucción’). You might ask a coworker to mark a stud layout using the word ‘marca’, which actually means a brand name, such as Ford or Chevy. On the other hand, ‘el marco’ would refer to the door jamb. You wouldn’t ‘aplicar’ for a job, since this refers to smear or spread as in glue or paint; the correct term for soliciting employment would be ‘solicitar’. 

Even more subtle, you may find yourself giving offense when you don’t mean to. Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Costa Ricans all consider themselves to be Americans, a term that people from the United States sometimes reserve for themselves (better to say ‘Estadounidense’, or United States-ian). You will also find that Bolivians, Nicaraguans, Argentineans, and all other Latin Americans prefer to be known by their country of origin than the generic “Hispanic.” In fact, “Hispanic” actually refers to those born in the island of Hispaniola, which includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic. If you need to use a generic term to refer to your Spanish-speaking colleagues, call them Latinos.

Finally, because Spanish speakers come from so many countries, you’ll find that while they all speak Spanish, they don’t all sound alike. Just as English varies from New England to New Orleans and from Ireland to Australia, Spanish varies even more. This means that expressions you learn on a job-site in New York may not translate in Miami. What’s more, what you learn on the job-site usually represents a mix of provincial Spanish with regional English, especially when English words do not have an easy one-word translation. For example, instead of saying ‘El muro en seco,’ which takes too long, most Spanish-speaking workers will say “dry-vol” (drywall). But a Latino working on the East Coast, where many people still refer to drywall as sheetrock, might say ‘El shee-ro.’

Confusing? Welcome to ‘Spanglish,’ soon to become the most widely spoken language on jobsites across the USA. As you develop your skills, keep in mind that what you want to learn is not so much the language as the means of communicating across the language barrier. In addition to words and phrases, take full advantage of facial expressions, hand gestures and your tone of voice. A friendly smile, a laugh and the occasional scowl translate with no dictionary required.

SBR: Resources for Learning Job-site Spanish
Instead of choosing a course designed to teach you the language as a whole, look for a Spanish course that focuses on construction phrases and vocabulary. This will allow you to put the language to use immediately. If you want to expand your vocabulary later, you’ll have a strong foundation to build on. Also, it’s a good idea to choose a course that features a native English-speaking instructor, not a Spanish-language native. You’ll find it much easier to learn from someone with an American accent than trying to mimic fastidiously perfect pronunciation.

As you learn Spanish, you’ll certainly want to have a Spanish/English dictionary on hand. I own several, in both reference-size for my desk and pocket-size so that I can bring it on the job site.

While translation dictionaries provide equivalents for specific words, when you learn a language you need concepts and expressions more often than terms. Here is where a phrase book, which provides Spanish/English translations of common sentences in specific context, comes in handy. You could use a phrase book to find expressions used in hiring, clean-up, or carpentry. Here are some resources to get you started:

Easy to Learn Construction Spanish. [Ablemos,] This 60-minute audio course features a clear-speaking Mexican instructor who shapes Spanish words with English-friendly tones, as well as two English-speaking instructors. Beyond simple vocabulary and phrases, the course breaks down Spanish pronunciation into vowels and consonants, then builds vocabulary by recreating simple dialog (it’s always easier to learn a language in a conversational context than trying to memorize isolated words). An easy-to-listen-to package that also offers insights into Latin culture, such as the importance of lunch as the main meal of the day, this course will keep your attention and offers the best approach to learning Spanish, especially for supervisors.

Workplace Spanish. I especially like the workbooks and audio courses in the Workplace Spanish series, which feature a number of profession- and  trade-specific programs, including one for homebuilders and another for commercial contractors. Both have substantially the same material, although the homebuilder’s course lists the rooms in a houses and the commercial includes heavy equipment.

The audio CD features two instructors, a native speaker and a North American with a distinctly Anglo accent, and includes 22 sections covering phrases and terms for safety, job rules, hardware, tools, measurements, the rooms in a house, building materials, appliances, paint colors, and so on. The workbook accompanying the audio course provides cultural and language tips, a guide to Spanish pronunciation, and job phrases sorted by topic. A selection of practice examples features job-specific situations, such as a tailgate safety briefing and hiring questions.

Survival Spanish for Construction. This audio course includes an hour-long CD and a slim workbook and pronunciation guide. The only construction-specific sections cover the rooms in a house and a glossary of tools, while the native Spanish-speaking instructor’s tone makes it difficult to stay awake. Although the native pronunciation is clear, an English speaker would have difficulty imitating it.

Means Spanish/English Construction Dictionary. [R.S. Means]
When browsing a new translation dictionary, I usually look up a few common English words which have no direct Spanish equivalent, such as ‘driveway,’ ‘shutter,’ or ‘drywall.’ If the dictionary tackles these tough translations, I know it’s probably worth a closer look. Nevertheless, the Means dictionary sits on my desk as an essential reference, even though it does not include some of these common words, because it contains most of the useful terms for tools, materials and building components. You can find it at almost any bookstore.

Diccionario de Arquitectura Construcción y Obras Públicas (Putnam y Carlson, Paraninfo, Madrid 1996) My favorite translation dictionary takes a little more effort to obtain because it comes from Spain. Written for Spanish architects pursuing design contracts in the United States, it includes the full range of construction-related terminology, many construction detail illustrations and a complete English/Spanish glossary.
Constructionary: English-Spanish Construction Dictionary (ICBO/McGraw-Hill) This toolbox dictionary includes a basic vocabulary of construction terms, useful phrases, measurements, time, and unit conversion tables for feet to meters and pounds to kilos .

Construction Spanish: Spanish Terms Commonly Used on Construction Projects (Investment Group Services, Ltd. 2002) This small volume can fit in a shirt pocket and provides a solid set of word equivalents and a few phrases and measurement conversions to boot.

Easy Spanish for Construction.  Although the phonetic pronunciation guide contained in this pocket-sized volume is a useful feature, it crowds the text and makes the presentation difficult to follow.    

English-Spanish Job-site Phrasebook (BuilderBooks, Washington DC 2003) and English-Spanish Framing Phrasebook (BuilderBooks, Washington, DC)

Author Kent Shepard learned his Spanish on the job site working as a general contractor. In an effort to communicate with Spanish-speaking framers, he began stockpiling English/Spanish phrases in a notebook, which evolved into these two phrase books. Both contain chapters on labor relations, safety, tools and accident and injury reporting. The job-site book covers concrete, framing, roofing, insulation and drywall, while the framing book goes into layout, framing walls, plumb and line, joists, roof cutting, window and door setting, punch lists and fireplaces. Given the specialized nature of construction – and especially wood framed construction – I use both of these terrific  phrasebooks with my Latino crews,  despite a lifetime of speaking Spanish.

Spanish Phrases for Landscaping Professionals (Jason Holben and Dominic Arbini, Stock Pot Publishing, Denver, CO, 2001) If you’re a landscaping contractor, this volume provides job-specific phrases, with chapters on hiring, safety, equipment handling, sprinklers, sod, bedding, planning, light masonry and clean up. 
Spanish in a Pinch (2nd Language Success,, 877-265-8575,

If you have traveled outside the English-speaking world and used a transaction guide, such “restaurant French,” or "how to order a meal in Mexico,” you’ll readily understand the concept behind “Spanish in a Pinch.” The book comes as a three-ring binder with laminated cards featuring common phrases associated with specific trades and situations. The cards include accident reporting, safety briefings, each of the construction trades from concrete to trim and even a card for subcontractor screening, “got insurance?” “Qué cobertura de seguro tienes…?” This should serve as a handy glove-box reference, although the pronunciation guide is not good. For example, the tortured (ray-KAW-ma-raws) clarifies the pronunciation of a simple word like “recámara,” (bedroom), which any Anglo can say easily with the clarification “re-camera.” Try saying ray-KAW-ma-raws and you may illicit laughter, but they won’t know your trying to find the bedroom.

A Few Common Expressions
Hi, I speak a little Spanish Hola, hablo un poquito de español. Ola hablo oon poqito de español
What’s your name? ¿Como se llama? Komo seh yama?
What do you need? ¿Qué necesitas? Ke nesecitas?
Follow me Sígame See-ga-meh
Help me Ayúdame Ah-jew-dameh
Load it Cárgalo Car-ga-lo
Great job! ¡Muy bien! Moo-i-bien
Drill Taladro Tah-la-dro
Screwdriver Destornillador Dehs-tornil-yadoor
Crowbar Barra Bar-rah
Saw Sierra See-air-ah
Nail Clavo Kla-voh
Tape Cinta Sen-tah
Drywall Hoja de yeso Ojah de yes-oh
Concrete Concreto Con-creh-toh
Framing Carpintería Car-pinter-iah
Painting Pintar Peen-tar
Electrical  Eléctrico Elect-rico
Heating Calefacción Cale-faction
Plumbing Plomería Plom-herria
Goodbye Adiós Ah-dios

< Prev

© 2021 Building An Affordable House