Indiana State University Newsroom

ISU, TH police learn to communicate with growing Hispanic population

July 27, 2010

When a man who spoke only Spanish made repeated calls to 911 earlier this year, Vigo County Central Dispatch reached out to Indiana State University for help.

Did the ISU Public Safety Department have an officer on duty who spoke Spanish?

Unfortunately, the department did not, ISU dispatcher Sandra Stuck recalled.

The calls kept up for more than an hour. By the time university police reached Theresa Ortega, who teaches conversational Spanish at Indiana State and Ivy Tech Community College, the calls had stopped. Ortega called the man's cell phone but there was no answer and no voice mail.

"So we didn't know if that person died, if they lived, if it was a house fire or someone bleeding. We didn't know what the problem was," Stuck said.

Because of that incident, Stuck jumped at the chance when she learned Ortega would be teaching a class in conversational Spanish for law enforcement.

"That's why I wanted to take this class - to perhaps help somebody down the road, find out if there is a problem and to get help to them."

Ortega, whose main job is as an administrative assistant in ISU's recreational sports department, is the first person in Indiana and the first person in the country other than a law enforcement officer or firefighter to be certified to teach the course by Public Safety Language Training.

Ortega's father is originally from Venezuela. Her parents met when they attended Indiana State. Her family moved to Venezuela when she was 5. When her parents divorced, she returned to Indiana with her mother.

She previously served as an interpreter for city, county and federal courts in Terre Haute. In the three month class for law enforcement, Ortega doesn't expect her students to become fluent in Spanish, but she does hope they learn enough to be able to communicate in emergencies.

"It takes an average adult five years to become fluent, but they will be very qualified first responders," she said. "The important thing is getting the information from the person who is hurt or who needs assistance, finding out what the crux of the matter is and getting them some help. That's what these officers and dispatchers will be able to do."

With few police officers in Terre Haute and Vigo County able to speak and understand Spanish, encounters with the area's growing Spanish-speaking population sometimes lead to misunderstandings and heightened tensions, officers said.

"We have a lot of Hispanics who live in town. It seems like the majority of them don't speak English or speak very little English," Terre Haute police officer Mike Ellerman said. "Then when they're around us they forget all that because they don't want to talk to us. They don't want to get in trouble. But a lot of times we're not trying to get them in trouble, we're just trying to help them."

Ortega's lessons move at a fast pace and she keeps thing fun, often passing out stickers to students when they do well and praising them with a "Muy bueno!" or an "Excelente."

Two-thirds of the way through the 12-week class, her students report their studies are progressing nicely.

"It's going well," Ellerman said. "I had three years of Spanish in high school so that helps. I think I'm doing all right. I'm at least able to understand what they're saying."

The small class size of three dispatchers and two officers, coupled with software that demonstrates the correct pronunciation of words, helps, said ISU officer Tamara Watts.

"It's easy to retain because of the repetition and the software we're using so you know the proper way to say things. Vocabulary is the biggest challenge because one word can mean two or three different things," Watts said.
Words that may be spoken in harmless fun in English can be taken quite seriously in Spanish, said ISU dispatcher Tonia Tucker.

"For example, calling somebody stupid. A lot of us will sometimes whip that off and not think about the consequences of it, whereas in another nationality it is very offensive," Tucker said.

Even occupations and places common in the United States, such as "babysitter" and "nursing home" don't exist in most Latin American countries, Tucker noted.

Ortega's students learn both formal Spanish, the preferred style for addressing adults the speaker does not know, and informal Spanish, used when communicating with acquaintances or with children.

"The child may know more English than the parent so sometimes officers may be able to get more assistance through them," she said.

The difference between formal and informal Spanish is much more than simply addressing people as "senor" or "senora." It also involves the use of different verbs, Ortega explained.

The officers and dispatchers taking the class should be commended, she said, especially because of the schedule that results.

Ellerman, for example, frequently attends the 7 a.m. class after working an overnight patrol shift and then may have to report for training with other Terre Haute police officers at 8 a.m.

But the effort will be worth it if it helps him overcome a language barrier that can lead to unnecessary tension, he said.

"Sometimes that little bit of a barrier escalates to where it becomes hostile when it doesn't need to be. The main reason I wanted to do it is just to make it a lot easier to deal with these types of situations, to just be able to communicate."

Photos: - Representatives of area police departments taking a conversational Spanish class at Indiana State University are (left to right) Sandra Stuck, ISU Public Safety Department dispatcher; Tamara Watts, ISU police officer; Tonia Tucker, ISU dispatcher; and Brian Pierce, ISU police officer. (ISU/Tony Campbell) - Theresa Ortega teaches conversational Spanish for law enforcement at Indiana State University (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Contact: Theresa Ortega, administrative assistant, Office of Recreational Sports, Indiana State University, 812-237-8096 or

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or

Story Highlights

In response to the growing Hispanic population in Indiana, officers and dispatchers with the ISU Public Safety Department and Terre Haute Police Department are taking a summer class in conversational Spanish - a class taught by an ISU staff member.

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