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Language of learning
Students not lost in translation
Aressa Silva researches possible jobs involving Spanish translation during a workplace Spanish class at North Forsyth High. - photo by Autumn McBride

Want to help?

Any business interested in potentially using North Forsyth High’s workplace Spanish students for interpreting or translating services should contact Robert Lopez at (770) 781-6637, Ext. 160515 or

A group of North Forsyth High School students sat busily typing away.

While it’s not uncommon for high schoolers to be on computers at school, their work on a recent afternoon was different than what many may expect.

The students were using various job search engines to find interpreter and translator positions. They then crafted resumes to match what the respective employers were seeking.

But that’s a pretty common activity in Robert Lopez’s workplace Spanish course, which has been offered at North for the past two years.

Lopez explained the course is a pilot program in conjunction with the Marketplace Spanish offering through Georgia’s Court Interpreters and Translators.

It’s the only class of its type at the high school level in the nation.

One objective of the class is to prepare students to enter the legal field as interpreters or translators of Spanish, although the skills carry over into numerous fields.

“This is the only high school course of its kind in the United States that specifically focuses on interpreter and translator skills in the court room setting,” Lopez said.

“These skills are then transferred over to other fields such as medical, social welfare and commercial settings.”

Lopez said there are four testing steps to be a fully certified court interpreter in Georgia, some are written and others oral.

By the time his students complete the course, he hopes they’ll at least be able to successfully complete the first exam, which is a written test.

“But some students are capable of completing all four steps by the time they leave [this class],” Lopez said. “But going through that process is really expensive and most students aren’t going to want to do that while they’re still in high school.”

Hard work, but worth it

Students considering the course must be bilingual, such as international students who have transferred into the school system, or have completed at least three levels of Spanish in previous classroom settings.

All applicants must be recommended by a teacher.

Most of the 16 students in the current class are juniors and seniors, although Lopez said he does have a few sophomores.

No matter their grade-level, he said the students share a strong work ethic.

“This is an extremely rigorous class,” he said. “These students have to be very detail-oriented and willing to really work hard. I can’t have any students in here who aren’t willing to work.”

For example, Lopez said during the first nine weeks of the class, the students had to learn nearly 500 business terms and phrases in fields ranging from banking and law to medical and utilities.

“They were quizzed every day on a different set of 20 to 25 of those terms,” Lopez said.

Megan Selvig and Maria Garcia, both juniors, said that while it can be difficult, the skills they’re learning are worth the effort.
Selvig said she wanted to take the class to “challenge her Spanish skills.”

“All my other Spanish classes are grammar-based, but this is building my confidence in actually speaking Spanish,” said Selvig, who wants to pursue Spanish and business or Spanish and education in college.

Garcia, a native of Mexico who moved to the United States at age 8, said the class is also helping her learn more about cultural nuances from other Spanish-speaking countries.

“There’s a lot of differences in words between countries,” she said. “One word in Mexico might mean sometime completely different in Chili. I’ve gained a lot of insight on how cultural procedures work.”

She said she’s also gained confidence through learning “to interpret faster and improve my speech in both [Spanish and English].”

Laying lucrative groundwork

Besides confidence, their work likely will pay off monetarily as well, potentially even before they graduate.

Christina Pakkala works with SpanGlish Bilingual Agency Inc. in Cumming, which provides Spanish interpreters and translators to various government agencies and businesses.

One of her primary roles is working as a court interpreter in Forsyth. She also serves as an adviser of sorts for the workplace Spanish program since her two teenagers are taking the class.

“Court interpreters usually make between $45 and $65 per hour,” she said. “You also get paid mileage and you get paid a minimum of two hours even if you were only there working for 10 minutes.”

Lopez added that one of the Spanish teachers at the school was paid $6,500 for “about three and a half hours” of work when she translated business documents from English to Spanish.

Pakkala said agencies such as the FBI and law firms also pay top dollar to people who can translate documents.

“The FBI pays around $45 an hour for you to sit at home and translate documents,” Pakkala said. “Law firms also pay well. They often need documents translated in their case files.”

For the students, the best part is that agencies are often willing to provide work without higher degrees or full certifications, she said. They just have do to be able to do the work.

Practice makes perfect

Ann Williams, the school system’s work-based learning coordinator, said she is in the early phases of finding businesses that might provide internships or jobs.

“We’re trying to see if we can find something so these kids can practice and hone their skills, while giving back to the community,” Williams said.

She said so far she and Lopez have “compiled a list of ideas and potential employers” and she’s mentioned the program to Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce officials.

“We’re looking forward to working with the community on finding opportunities for these students,” Williams said.

James McCoy, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said the students’ skills likely will be in demand, particularly as the business world continues to become more global.

“Folks who are multilingual will be in greater and greater demand as time goes on and we get more connected to other parts of the world,” he said. “At the moment, English continues to be the most widely used language, but that’s quickly changing and knowing other languages is going to be a part of the business world.”

McCoy noted that programs such at the workplace Spanish course “give students a competitive edge” since there’s already “an everyday need” for interpreting and translating services.

“I know [Northside Hospital-Forsyth] is continuously in need of interpreters, and I would imagine almost any retail call center would have a need,” he said. “There’s a lot of viable, good jobs out there in this field.”

Speaking the future

Lopez said the class is still in its early phases.

He hopes within the next few years to be able to offer the program as a two-level course, though it’s currently just one.

In the workplace Spanish II, he said, students would get additional real-life oral and written practice through jobs and internships.

“In that second year, we’d actually put them out in the workplace,” he said.

In the long-term future, he hopes to see North Forsyth eventually partner with North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega to offer a “language academy,” in which high school students could earn college credit for a variety of advanced foreign language classes.

“I call it my rainbow project,” he said. “I’d like to see all these different colors of different languages being taught here.”