[UTA Magazine]


Speaking the language of the streets
Pilot program teaches 'specific purpose' Spanish to Arlington police officers

Seven years on police patrol have tested Mike Skarbek’s communication skills in Spanish. Twenty-one percent of the city’s population is Hispanic, a fast-growing demographic throughout Texas and the country.

computer mouse and pad with police badge

The Arlington patrolman uses his modest Spanish talents in traffic accidents, domestic disputes, burglary investigations, spats involving juveniles and myriad other legal problems. To strengthen his abilities, he has taken a written version of a law enforcement competency exam in the language.

So far, despite all his street experience, Skarbek has never faced a problem familiar to anyone who’s had a traditional high school or college foreign language course.

“I’ve never had anyone ask me to conjugate a verb,” he said with a laugh. “They need to offer it (language training) as street Spanish.”

Skarbek is clued in to a major trend: LSP (language for specific purposes). In this case the “specific purpose” is Spanish for law enforcement. Thanks to a Spanish language pilot program being pioneered by UTA, such specific use training may eventually be offered to law officers via the Internet nationwide.

Right now, the University is testing the idea in collaboration with the Arlington Police Department and 33 of the city’s police officers, ranging from patrolmen and detectives to a deputy chief.

“For hundreds of years we’ve taught foreign language in a way so as to be all things to all people,” notes Pete Smith, UTA’s director of distance education. “That would include reading, writing, grammar, listening and culture. Everybody got a little bit of everything but not a whole lot of anything. But in some cases, people — like law enforcement officers — come to language study for very specific, specialized communication purposes.”

In the case of Spanish, the University’s Center for Distance Education has digitized and made Internet accessible a state-developed Spanish for Law Enforcement course originally created as a correspondence course by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

“Police, firefighters, emergency service people and others often have a situation of dealing with a growing population that is part of our culture but with some members who often don’t speak or understand English very well,” said Elizabeth Kozak, UTA’s coordinator of special projects for distance education.

Kozak has been the one mainly responsible for converting the state instructional program into Internet format.

“It’s not important that police officers know how to order a salad in Spanish,” Kozak points out. “But it can be extremely important to be able to take an offense report, be reasonably able to comfort a crime victim, take different traffic reports and to otherwise handle everyday situations.”

What the 14-week course doesn’t do, Kozak explains, is provide language mastery. “In approximately 40 hours of study, well, that is only a start on a life of language learning and appreciation of other cultures,” she said.

“It’s workplace specific. They’re not going to be learning massive amounts of verb conjugation and grammar. They’re going to be learning very specific phraseology.”

Internet-accessed instruction includes text, visual and audio examples. Via an audio card on their computers, the officers actually hear correctly phrased and accented examples, including slang and street-talk semantics.

“Interactivity on the Web really helps with specific job tasks,” Kozak said.

Example: A patrol officer might work his way through an instructional unit on traffic enforcement, while a detective could focus initially on crime scene investigation dialogue. A cultural component of the short course also examines issues like differences in etiquette and personal space.

And course content can be altered — potentially in hours — for special problems. “There might develop a law enforcement challenge related to a natural disaster, an epidemic or even terrorism,” Dr. Smith said. “We could customize a Spanish program for specific use very quickly.”

Though the pilot program won’t conclude until mid-June, inquiries about the availability of the course statewide are growing. Officer feedback and modifications will take place before enrollment is expanded.

“The word has spread, and we have a lot of city police departments calling us to ask about LSP Spanish enrollment, including some towns from other states,” Smith said. “We hope to have them online this year. Eventually this should convert to an enrollment boost for UTA, if participating officers should want to take the course either for college or continuing education credit.”

Completion of the course will also help officers pass a state examination that requires modest proficiency in Spanish. Only about 60 of Arlington’s approximately 500 officers have passed an exam deeming them fluent in Spanish, so the UTA pilot program has been a welcome addition to the city’s own training program. Rookies working their way through the police academy receive about 40 hours of instruction in Spanish.

“Our philosophy is, how can we better serve the citizens and get these officers some education?” said APD Lt. Blake Miller, a specialist in officer training. “This (collaboration with UTA) is our opening step.”

It’s a step patrolman Mike Skarbek is eager to take.

– O.K. Carter

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