How to communicate when they don’t speak English

Many institutions, including health care, education, government and others, serve clients of limited English proficiency (LEP). With an LEP audience, English speakers can ensure effective  2-way communication by adjusting their communication style. Being patient, concise, and a good listener makes all the difference.

What to do when your partner doesn’t speak English:

1.  Assess Language Level

  • Look for blank stare, tense body language, both signs of not understanding.
  • Ask yes/no questions for low level
  • Ask open-ended questions with why and how for intermediate  level
  • Ask client to repeat key words, main ideas or important information.

2. Beware of Cultural Filters

  • Do not equate an accent, poor grammar, or lack of fluency with lack of intelligence.
  • LEP clients may say they understand when they don’t, to save face. Check comprehension.
  • Asian LEP clients may smile or giggle when they do not understand or when they feel uncomfortable.
  • Their cultural framework is different than yours. Expect difference, not similarities.
  • Show respect; you don’t have to agree. Listen to learn, not refute.

3. Listen Actively

  • Be quiet. Allow pauses. Give the other time to think as well as to talk.
  • Listen for key words, main ideas.
  • Pay attention to nonverbal communication.
  • Don’t interrupt, speak over, or finish their sentences.

4. Adjust Your Speaking

  • Do not repeat yourself louder if they don’t understand.
  • Use short sentences with simple grammar and vocabulary.
  • Use signposts (first, second, after that, etc) to lead the listener through your thought process.
  • Stay on topic. Don’t digress.
  • Avoid idioms, jargon, acronyms and slang.
  • Speak at a slower rate than with you would with native speakers.

5. Reinforce With Visuals

  • Restate information with visuals, i.e. pictures, maps, tables.
  • Use facial and hand gestures to emphasize and clarify.
  • Demonstrate.
  • Summarize in an email or written summary. Give handouts.

6. Design Better Programs (info sessions, workshops, etc)

  • Divide material into smaller units and digestible chunks.
  • Allow for breaks. Thinking in a second language is tiring!
  • Plan for a longer time frame. Assume things will take longer than with  native speakers.
  • Provide handouts.
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