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Bremer Bank employees in Willmar learn Spanish for bankers

Bremer employees Alejandro Ojeda Estrada, center, and Brady Danielson, right, are among those answering questions during a recent session with Spanish for Banking instructor Coleen Swanson. A handful of Bremer employees completed the eight-week course to learn some basic, banking-related phrases to better serve their Latino customers. (Linda Vanderwerf/West Central Tribune)

WILLMAR -- A group of 13 Bremer Bank employees are ready to greet their Spanish-speaking customers with more than a smile.

The employees from Willmar, Redwood Falls and Marshall have just completed an eight-week Spanish for Banking class.

They now know how to greet a customer in Spanish and have learned to say a variety of banking-related phrases like, "Do you want to deposit this check?" and "Please fill out this form."

The course was offered through Ridgewater College Customized Training and Continuing Education. Ridgewater is a licensed provider of Command Spanish and can provide on-site, job-specific Spanish language and cultural training for businesses.

Command Spanish offers courses to serve 48 occupations, including different aspects of law enforcement, health care, manufacturing and construction.

The Bremer employees met for two hours a week with instructor Coleen Swanson. Employees from Redwood Falls and Marshall joined by video link.

During the last class period a week ago, the students split into teams to play a Jeopardy-style game to test their translation knowledge. Swanson gave them the English phrase and waited for one team or another to answer. She sometimes corrected a word or two. "You would still be understood," she said to one group after correcting how a word was pronounced.

The teams cheered and threw their arms up in the air when they got one right, and there was a lot of good-natured teasing.

The employees said they plan to continue meeting to keep their new skills fresh.

Shane Johnson, the branch administrator in Willmar, said the bank has a lot of Latino customers. "We want to make sure all of our clients feel welcome," he said.

Bremer has a bilingual employee at each location, and their co-workers' new skills will be helpful to them and to clients. "It's a way for us to help out if they aren't available," Johnson said.

The group was full of praise for Swanson, a 34-year teacher who is retired from teaching at Willmar Senior High. She talked about Latino culture during the class and was a big help to them, Johnson said.

Swanson said this was her first class in the Command Spanish program, and she enjoyed doing it. The video links worked OK, but it wasn't ideal for teaching the Spanish class, she said. Johnson said the video link was much more efficient for the bank. Employees from the different banks used the video link to meet between classes, too.

Pat Kelly, program manager for customized training and continuing education, said the college will be offering more customized Spanish courses. This summer, a Spanish class for school administrators, teachers and staff will be offered. In the fall, a Spanish for travelers class is on the schedule.

Johnson said he feels all the employees who were involved took something away from the class.

Jane Nielsen, who works in client services in Willmar, said she has learned some phrases she can use in phone conversations, too.

She is now able to help people on the telephone who want to talk to a bilingual employee. She can tell them in Spanish if he's in a meeting or with a client, and she's able to ask them to leave a message or call later.

Pam Sigafoos, a personal banker, said she understands more of what she hears now, but she has been timid about using her Spanish. It's given her some insight into the challenges of the bank's Latino clients. "I can imagine how they feel speaking to us in English," she said.

"We had a lot of fun learning," Johnson said. "We would definitely do it all over again." The textbook for the class came with a CD, too. Johnson said he kept it in his car and listened to it while he was driving.

Johnson said he would recommend the class to other businesses.

Kelly said the classes are a way to show the Latino population that businesses consider them a viable, important part of the community.