Making it Stick

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Making it Stick

Getting to Know CHICLE Language Institute

By: Tom Griffen

If you’ve taken basic Spanish, you might remember that the word chicle translates to “chewing gum.” Locally, CHICLE is an acronym that stands for Chapel Hill Institute for Language and Education. Recently relocated from Carrboro to an office complex on Conner Drive, they strive to be the Triangle’s one-stop-shop for all language needs. Looking to learn Urdu? Need a manual translated into Spanish or Karen? Seeking a Russian interpreter? CHICLE’s ready to help.  

When CHICLE first opened in 1999, its vision was to serve the area’s rapidly growing Hispanic population. Its original intention was not to become a business, but rather serve as an English-language acquisition resource within the Latino community. Word of mouth marketing grew momentum, and before long CHICLE found themselves fielding requests for services in a variety of languages. Their menu of offerings thus increased to serve the area’s international community.

In 2013, when the founders of CHICLE decided to retire, long-term employee Perla Saitz knew she had to do something. She wasn’t willing to sit back and watch CHICLE’s hard work come to an abrupt halt.

“[CHICLE] was my baby,” Perla said. “Not just a workplace. It already felt like my own and I just couldn’t let it close.”

Rebeca Cabrera, one of Perla’s coworkers at the time, felt the same way.

Knowing they complimented each others’ strengths and weaknesses, Perla and Rebeca developed a plan to buy the business together. In January 2014, two career teachers from Mexico and Costa Rica, respectively, became small business owners.  

They laugh while remembering when, keys in-hand, they suddenly faced their new reality. A deer in the headlights sort of moment, and neither knew where to begin.

“We were teachers, not business owners!” said Rebeca.

But with Perla’s degree in Business Administration, and Rebeca’s husband’s new MBA, they had a solid foundation. Their guiding principles were simple: maintain high standards, deliver excellent service, and become part of the community. All while being friendly and always respecting clients who, in many cases, become their friends.

“One bad experience is enough to ruin a business,” Perla said. 

CHICLE’s clients cross the spectrum. From various departments at UNC, to an array of Triangle businesses; from kids taking ESL classes, to older folks looking to keep their brains stimulated; from employees needing deeper language skills, to employers trying to improve their cultural knowledge. There’s no limit to who might become a CHICLE customer and Perla and Rebeca want to keep it that way.

Recently CHICLE has been challenged to satisfy the needs of newly arrived Syrian refugees. The confidential translation of birth certificates, passports, transcripts, diplomas, and family documents help ease people’s transitions to the United States while ensuring their access to services.

“I’ve been there,” said Rebeca. “I learned the hard way how to navigate the system, how to figure out directions. The people who work here feel an obligation to help.”

Perla and Rebeca insist that small details matter. They only offer one-on-one and small group instruction because they believe it’s the best environment for language-learning. Translation and interpretation require a knowledge of overall context, target audience, and intended formality.

These days countless websites offer translation services, but results can be catastrophic. Perla told a story about a dental practice that used an online translator to put the following statement into Spanish: Welcome to our kid-friendly facility. The website translated the word “kid” as cabrito, which refers to a baby goat. Funny, sure. But embarrassing to a business with good intentions.

“This happens all the time,” said Perla.

CHICLE only contracts with employees who are native speakers, or if they have 100% fluency in language and culture. Their complex hiring process seeks folks who are also good at teaching languages in the first place.

“Just because someone’s taught math, doesn’t mean they can teach a language,” Perla said.

CHICLE employees have a passion for making their clients’ lives easier. For creating a community of learners who are having fun during the process.

“Bottom line,” said Rebeca, “We love to help.”

CHICLE wants their influence to stick.

Chicle Logo