White Sox English immersion program helps prospects acclimate

White Sox English immersion program helps prospects acclimate
March 7, 2014, 1:00 pm
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- He was so proud of the skills he acquired from an English immersion program for White Sox minor-leaguers that Miguel Gonzalez couldn't wait to get to spring training.

The Venezuelan catcher, who appeared in five games with the White Sox last season, worked for four years to feel comfortable speaking English and didn't want to wait any longer to put it to use. Shortly after he arrived in Arizona for spring training a few years ago, Gonzalez headed straight for a restaurant to place an order.

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"I got to order my food with no lettuce or tomatoes because I hate that," Gonzalez said. "(They) taught me how to go, 'Can I have this?' and say, 'Give me this.'"

While it would seem a simple task, the White Sox know the act of ordering a specific favorite dish is a big hurdle for their Spanish-speaking players. It's one they have tried to help Latin players clear for more than 20 years through an English immersion program that begins the moment prospects arrive at the team's academy in the Dominican Republic. The club believes teaching English to prospects will instill in their players a confidence that will benefit them and the organization on and off the field throughout their careers.

"We've had a lot of really good results from it," White Sox player development director Nick Capra said. "It's kind of baby steps when we bring them over for the first time but it's exciting to see how they adjust. Some adjust more so than others, and it's definitely a big process...It's something that really helps us long term."

The White Sox program has been in place since the early 1990s, when club employee Sal Artiaga began teaching English to such minor-leaguers as Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee when they played in the Gulf Coast League. Several years later, executive vice president Kenny Williams hired Denny Gonzalez to start instructing players who are as young as 16 when they arrive in the Dominican Republic.

But English isn't the only language taught; Spanish is also perfected.

The hope is that by the time players reach high Single-A they will have a solid grasp of English as well as their native language.

"I've found that with a lot of these kids, they don't have a lot of school either," said Grace Guerrero-Zwit, the team's senior director of minor-league operations. "Some of them need to perfect Spanish.

"They need to learn to read and write their own language in order for them to pick up another language. It's going to help them if they can have a stronger foundation in their own language, not just to speak, but writing."

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Teaching isn't just restricted to the academy.

When minor-league camp opened Wednesday, Spanish-speaking players began one hour of class per week. The team holds classes for beginning and advanced speakers.

The amount of hours increases to three in April when the bulk of the club's young Latin players arrive for the Arizona Rookie League. Those players are in Arizona from April until August.

The White Sox want to encourage players to practice English as much as possible. So, included in the classes are trips to the grocery store, bank and restaurants.

"We separate the kids that are struggling to pick it up and the ones that are catching on and are so eager," Zwit said. "They're not afraid, they're not embarrassed. That's a character thing. Not all kids are like, 'I can do this' and don't care about making mistakes.

"Some take a little bit longer."

Gonzalez has confidence. He's one of Zwit's All-Stars.

In the organization since he was 17, Gonzalez has been speaking for six years now. Learning English has helped him not only off the field but also in developing chemistry with teammates, which is essential because he's a catcher.

It wasn't always this easy for Gonzalez. But now he has no problem whether it's avoiding tomatoes and lettuce or understanding his manager.

"It's been like three or four years to feel comfortable because you've got to use it," Gonzalez said. "You have to pay attention in classes and concentrate 100 percent because you have to use the English. It's more easy (here) because I'm talking with a lot of guys, and I'm learning from them and I ask about words all the time and that just helps a little bit more."