Leveraging the Communication Skills of English Language Learners in the Workplace

By c, English Language and Cultural Services, LLC  (ELCS, LLC)

Language Learners In The Workplace

No matter what their profession, lawyers, restaurant workers, engineers and administrative assistants who are limited English speakers run into communication challenges in their workplace.  One of these challenges is how to succeed in communicating their unique ideas and perspectives to their supervisor or colleagues.  When valuable members of the team with different cultural perspectives and innovative ideas are hindered from contributing, everyone suffers.

Especially because of their unique perspective, foreign-born employees have a lot to offer.  It is a common mistake to assume that because someone doesn’t speak up, they don’t have anything to say.  However, there are many reasons employees may not speak up.  One major reason is that they may have difficulty understanding the language and asking for what they need in order to understand.  This post will discuss this issue.  Other issues, covered in later posts, are difficulty with speaking or writing, or with use of different cultural “rules” for communication.

Be conscious of your language use—so that everyone can follow.

Listening is one of the most difficult skills to master when learning a second language.  Imagine you’ve taken two years of Spanish and then turn on a Spanish news program.  It’s very likely that you will miss the majority of the message even though you can draw some conclusions from video footage and recognize a handful of words.  There are a couple of things native speakers can do to help the listener as she builds her skills.

Separate your words.  In American English,   we runourwordstogether.  This is a natural way of speaking, but makes understanding more difficult.  Take a few extra moments to speak by separating some of your words slightly.  This takes a little more time, but can ultimately save the time you otherwise spend sorting out misunderstandings.  As the listener builds his skills and becomes accustomed to your way of speaking, this will be less and less necessary.

Cut back on idioms.  When you think about how much of your language doesn’t carry its literal meaning, you can see how English learners might have trouble understanding.  Try to be aware of the idioms you use and use the literal meaning, wherever possible.  Here are some examples:

  1. I need to “brush up” on my computer skills. Instead, say:  I need to review my computer skills.
  2. I’m “taking off” for the day. Instead, say:  I’m leaving for the day.
  3. I’m “cutting back” on coffee. Instead, say:  I’m reducing the amount of coffee that I drink.

We may use 100 or more idioms a day.  It takes time to build awareness and alter the way we speak, but it is worth the effort.  And English language learners will, over time, increase their vocabulary and ability to understand idioms.  If we are intentional to avoid overuse of them, it will be easier for them to learn naturally.

Make sure they “get it” by encouraging their active listening skills.

Many language learners will appear that they understand what is being said to them when, in fact, a large part of the message is being missed.  This might be in order to save face, to keep the speaker engaged, or for a variety of other reasons.  There are a few ways you can help.

Ask the employees to demonstrate what they understand by:

  • Sending an e-mail summarizing what they are going to do based on a conversation or meeting
  • Summarizing the conversation you just had (either verbally or in an e-mail)
  • Taking the minutes at a meeting
  • Asking specific questions about the details of the conversation or meeting

Above all, communicate that it is okay if employees don’t understand everything that is spoken!  Encourage them to take the time needed to clarify, ask questions and contribute their thoughts and opinions.

Provide support where needed.

Your employees may need to dedicate some time to improving their English with a coach or instructor.

There are many free ESL programs out there for employees who can dedicate the time to attend classes after work.  Community based organizations and community colleges can be great resources and offer a wide range of opportunities.

However, if your employee(s) need more than a “one size fits all” approach, you may want to consider a professional English language and cultural awareness training organization that can come to your company.  Customized classes, training, and coaching can be more efficient and target more specific needs.  ELCS, LLC, for example, provides needs assessments, customized curricula and coaching and training for individuals and groups at your place of work.  To read more or discuss options for your employees, click here.

And as many of us who have worked on a situation know, there will always be situations where there is no substitute for employees to hear or read something in their own language.  Fortunately, providing translation and interpretation services is convenient and cost-effective.

I encourage you to respond to this post by sharing ways that you facilitate good communication in your place of work.  “Stay tuned” for follow-up posts on how cultural expectations affect communication.