How to Communicate With People Who Speak Limited English

by JoyB; Updated September 26, 2017
Business colleagues talking

As potential workers continue to emigrate from other nations, U.S. managers increasingly benefit from developing special skills for communicating with those who speak limited English. Some employees may make extra efforts to learn English, but the manager who wants to capitalize on the skills of foreign-born employees must still ensure that communication in the work group isn’t hampered by language barriers while these employees are learning an unfamiliar language. Learning some specific communication skills ensures that everyone is productive and comfortable in the work place.

Increase Your Ability to Understand the Employee

Step 1

Don't rush. The pressure to speak quickly can make a person--especially someone with a limited command of English--more difficult to understand.

Step 2

Paraphrase and summarize. Repeat in your own words what you think the person is saying. For example, begin with, “Let me see if I understand. You’re saying … “

Step 3

Use written communication. Let the person know you value his ideas and ask him to summarize them in a written memo.

Step 4

Pay close attention to body language. Non-verbal communication tends to have different meanings depending on culture, but you can still pick up a lot of information by watching facial expressions and gestures. Before making assumptions, though, be sure to check out your observations: “I notice you’re frowning. Does that mean you feel …?”

Step 5

Learn a few words in the employee’s language to show that you're genuinely interested in learning more about his life and culture.

Help the Employee Understand You

Step 1

Don’t shout. Although it may be natural to speak more loudly when trying to help someone understand, increasing your volume can backfire by intimidating the employee.

Step 2

Avoid slang and jargon. The literal translation of many English slang words is very different (and sometimes X-rated) in other languages.

Step 3

Speak slowly and distinctly, using short simple sentences.

Step 4

Whenever possible, use visual aids, such as drawings or job aids, to illustrate your points.

Step 5

Take responsibility for being clear. Say, “I’m not sure I explained this very well. Tell me in your own words what you understand about completing this project.”

Find Out Whether the Employee Has Understood You

Step 1

Be alert for signals that indicate that the person does not understand. Examples include a blank look, frowns, fidgeting or an effort to change the subject.

Step 2

Keep in mind that “no questions” sometimes mean “no understanding.”

Step 3

Avoid asking, “Okay?” after giving directions. Non-native speakers may reply “yes” to mean “I hear” rather than “I understand.” Instead, ask the person for questions and then tell him you’ll be checking in with him later. The best way to know whether he understood is to see whether he follows your directions.

Step 4

Be cautious about preventing employees from speaking their own languages in the workplace. Without doubt, there are many times when it’s essential that everyone is “on the same page.” But in an environment where people really want to communicate, the limited-English speaker will be sensitive to the feelings of the native-English employee who is feeling left out, and managers will feel comfortable encouraging people to speak English when necessary. In reality, speaking multiple languages is a valuable skill, turning a perceived obstacle into an opportunity for productivity and camaraderie in the modern workplace.

References

  • "Catching the Wave of Workforce Diversity"; Joy Bodzioch; 1995

Photo Credits

  • Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images