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Winston-Salem Journal (KRTBN)

Winston-Salem, N.C.-Based Language Links Teaches Second Languages, Cultures

By Jeanne Sturiale, Winston-Salem Journal, N.C.

June 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003 KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. All rights reserved. 

Jun. 17--At the core of Language Links Inc., a business owned by Cristina Roche and Jerry Arias, are two youngsters discovering distant lands.

Growing up, Roche and Arias called many places home. Their father's work took the family from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to far-flung places. Between them, the siblings have lived in Buenos Aires, New York, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, France and Mexico.

Years later, Roche and Arias have turned their multilingual, multicultural experiences into Language Links. Its three-part mission is teaching Spanish and other second languages, translation/interpretation and cultural-sensitivity training.

Roche has a convincing pitch for Language Links, which was recently named Minority Business of the Year by the Greater Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.

The Latino experience is made up of many cultures, Roche said. Mexicans express themselves differently from Cubans, Cubans differently from Puerto Ricans and so on.

"We understand these nuances," Roche said. "I didn't read it in the books. I lived it."

Since its creation four years ago, Language Links has built its teaching program to just under 100 students and quadrupled annual billings to over $100,000, Arias said.

The momentum has been driven primarily by the siblings' talents. But other forces, such as the exploding Hispanic population in the Triad and nationwide, and the post-NAFTA economy, have also increased business despite an anemic economy.

Language Links' biggest client, Sara Lee Corp.'s branded apparel unit, has multiple operations in Central America, Mexico and other Spanish-speaking regions. Don Eppert heads Sara Lee's corporate university, which coordinates the language-training program.

"A lot of our employees are working through the phone lines or going down and visiting Spanish-speaking countries. We also have folks down there coming up here," Eppert said. "It helps them do their jobs better and interact with their counterparts."

Eppert said he is pleased with the level of training by Language Links. "They have a top-flight set of instructors."

Employees like Carol Craig, a purchasing agent at Sara Lee Underwear, are in advanced classes and now communicate with confidence when traveling to Costa Rica or El Salvador. Others, like Loretta Hughes of Sara Lee Hosiery's purchasing department, don't use Spanish directly on the job but want to enhance their careers.

Roche, whose 25 years of teaching include eight at Summit School, wrote the curriculum for and manages teaching. She and five language teachers present the intensive course, which focuses on fluency. Roche also contracts with instructors in French and Mandarin Chinese.

Other language-training clients are Self-Help Credit Union in Greensboro, and a number of individual students, Arias, with marketing and translation backgrounds, manages business growth and oversees translations and interpretations. He contracts with seven translators/interpreters, mostly in the Spanish language. Jobs might involve producing a voiceover for a training video, or presenting benefits programs at manufacturing plants.

The translation market is tight. "There's a lot of competition and a big spectrum of quality level out there," Arias said.

Roche and Arias have added a cultural-sensitivity workshop, which they lead, to round out Language Link's services. Clients have been Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, National Textiles Inc., Centerpoint Human Services, and Sara Lee.

Language Links was started with minimal capital. Roche and Arias keep overhead low, operating from their homes and holding training at clients' offices, plants or pre-arranged classrooms.

Language-instruction rates range from about $15 an hour for small-group lessons, to $60 an hour for private lessons. It takes about two years to complete the full course, Roche said.

Roche and Arias defend those prices, notably higher than those of a competitor, North Carolina's community-college system. But Language Links guarantees a low teacher-to-student ratio and native teachers, Arias said.

So far, outside of area colleges, Language Links' teaching component has little local competition, Arias said.

"There are some international companies, like Berlitz, that do what we do, and who have representatives in urban areas. That's precisely what I want to do, compete with them." Arias said. "We're also hoping to expand in North Carolina and Georgia, and have operations in other cities, like Charlotte."

Roche said that the partners have sustained growth. "But we aren't where we wanted to be. With the economy, our services are seen as a luxury, even though they're a necessity for some people."

But the brother-and-sister team are counting on globalization and demographics to change that view.

"More people will realize they're going to need Spanish in the business world," Arias said. "The country is not going to become less bilingual."

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