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June 02, 1999 1 min read
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To the rescue

One man’s desire to learn a foreign language turned into a training program that teamed schoolchildren with a group of firefighters in Lexington, Ky.

Part of Maj. Charles Mauer’s job as the emergency-medical-services training officer for the Lexington fire department is to coordinate continuing education programs for employees.

He noticed that some of his firefighters, many of them with thick Southern accents, were having a hard time communicating with central Kentucky’s growing Spanish-speaking population when responding to emergency calls.

“Smiling and nodding will get you through 90 percent of what you need to know,” Mr. Mauer said. “But, unfortunately, there is a lot of information we can’t get that way, like past medical history.”

So he devised a crash course in Spanish pronunciation. “I always wished that I had some way of speaking the language,” he said.

He found a phonetic guidebook the firefighters could use to ask yes-or-no questions in Spanish.

But how could he evaluate their progress? “A firefighter could come up to me and rattle off something that sounded Spanish enough. I had no way of judging if they were understandable,” Mr. Mauer said.

The answer came when he heard a fellow firefighter bragging about his child’s success in the local Fayette County school district’s Spanish-immersion program.

The upshot was, he ended up enlisting about 60 middle and high school students, along with a handful of teachers, to help out.

Teams of students and emergency personnel met for six days in April at the fire department’s training facility.

The program consisted of a variety of pronunciation drills, including a scenario in which students pretended to be hurt, and the firefighters read questions out of their guidebooks. Then the students evaluated their pronunciation.

And, Mr. Mauer says, the students, some of whom have been in the immersion program since kindergarten, were quite successful.

He said the program was beneficial for all involved because it “gave these kids a boost. It showed them how important what they are doing is.” Though at first some of the participants resisted being taught by students, Mr. Mauer said he received “very few negative comments” by the end of the program, and even some interest in expanding it.

--Michelle Galley

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A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 1999 edition of Education Week


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