By Sean Walker
While many Latino immigrant entrepreneurs start restaurants and taco shops, a Salt Lake City resident from Colombia had a different idea — teaching Spanish to native English speakers.
That”s just what Jaime Pena did.
He graduated from college in Bogot? before following his parents to Utah in 1986, where he earned a second bachelor”s degree in economics from the University of Utah. Still, he wasn”t sure what he wanted to do after graduation.
Later a friend convinced Pena to start teaching Spanish classes through Granger Community Education, but Pena was unsure if that was how he wanted to use his degree in economics. Following the success of his first class, Pena was ready to commit.
“My students told me that the time I was teaching wasn”t good for most people,” Pena said. “They told me that I should open an academy.”
Pena founded Hablemos Language Academy in 2003 with six students. Since then, it has grown to 18 instructors who teach Spanish classes at two campuses in the Salt Lake area. Due to demand, the academy now offers English courses for companies who rely on a large Hispanic employee population.
Recently, the academy was honored with the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce”s Minority Small Business award. The chamber will officially present the award to Pena on March 25 at a luncheon in Salt Lake City.
“We are really happy to have been chosen [for this award],” Pena said. “[The chamber] feels we are making a contribution to the community here. There are many people interested in Latinos, such as businessmen who want to open a business in Latin America.”
Among Pena”s goals with the academy is to bring the U.S. up to the same level as the rest of the world where multi-language speakers are the norm.
“Americans are rising to the challenge of western Europe – to speak three or four languages,” Pena said.
Companies that use the academy include international chains such as Barrick Gold of North America, national companies like Ballard Medical and Sysco Food Industries, offices of the Sandy Police Department and some personnel of the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Pena”s program relies on a slightly different approach to teaching a second language. Students progress through six levels of basic material in Spanish, beginning with the production of sounds through a solid understanding of the grammatical structure of the language, and ending with mastery of verb use and conjugation.
For interested students, an additional conversational course is offered. The conversation classes are divided into two levels, one for proficient speakers (most of which have finished the beginning course) and one for nearly fluent Spanish speakers.
For Pena, teaching a second language involves more than grammar and vocabulary.
“We understand both cultures well,” Pena said. “[Our students] don”t just learn a language.”
Tuition is $197 per six-week course, with partial-tuition discounts given to low-income students on a case-by-case basis. The academy also offers discounts to full-time LDS missionaries headed to Latin America.
“Whenever we have available space in the classes, we are willing to offer a discounted rate,” Pena said.
Interested students can find more information at the Web site, hablemosacademy.com.