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.
- 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.