Compassionate Communication: Tips for Talking with Minimal English Speakers

We’ve all seen it (or done it ourselves.) In an attempt to communicate with someone who speaks minimal English we’ve repeated our words, talked louder, repeated our words again, talked even louder…and when no headway was made, maybe just thrown our hands up and walked away.

Not anymore!

At the request of volunteers who assist our English teachers in the classroom, the Education Coordinator for the Center for New Americans put together some “helpful tips” for communicating with speakers of limited English:

1. Slow down.

2. Repeat your sentence.

3. Ask: “Do you understand?” or look for signs of confusion.

4. Reword your sentence. Simplify it by using the fewest possible, most essential words. Use only the vocabulary/words you are sure the person knows.

-Side note about #4- when we have volunteers come to observe our English classes at the Center for New Americans, we encourage them to “listen to how the teacher changes their English.” In “teacher talk” this is called grading language. It can take some time to catch on to, I know from experience. At first, I felt silly or ashamed because it seemed like I was talking down to this person, but it is all about effective input: What can this person understand? This is how I will speak. To speak in a way where the focus is effective input is not talking down, it is speaking with compassion.

5. Try using only one or two words.

6. Use body language and gestures to show what you mean.

7. Write the most important information down on paper or use an appointment card. This person may not read English, but they probably know someone who does and can translate basic information to them.

8. Be patient. This person really wants to understand you, but has very limited English.

If you have ever traveled to a place where you spoke little to none of the native language, you can easily remember how grateful you were for the people you met who showed patience, gestured towards the right direction, or spoke slow and simply to you with a smile. In my travels, I considered these people angels, life-savers; special people who helped keep my spirit of adventure alive, restored my faith in humanity, and helped a strange place feel just a little less strange.

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