Originally printed in . . .

Supervising Across Language Barriers

This article is adapted with permission from Practical Supervision, published by Professional Training Association, Inc., 210 Commerce Blvd, Round Rock, TX 78664-2189. For subscription information, phone 800/424-2112.

As the country's workforce changes, more and more supervisors are faced with the challenge of communicating with employees who do not speak English easily. That challenge can be frustrating, but it can be met effectively. In Bridging Cultural Barriers for Corporate Success (Lexington Books, 1991), Sondra Thiederman offers practical ideas for improving communication with workers whose English is limited.

Using the following tips, you can locate where communication bridges need to be built, understand how to build them, and help "ESL employees" (for whom English is a second language) narrow the communication gap from their side. Putting these tips into practice can also build higher productivity and mutual respect on your farm, even if the employees are already fluent in English. The keys to making yourself understood with ESL workers can help improve communication with everyone.

Consider the Employee's Perspective

The overwhelming majority of non-native English speakers want to succeed, and are intelligent and hard-working enough to do so. But English is a complex language, and many ESL workers are intimidated by the difficulty of making themselves understood. When people cannot make themselves easily understood, they may quickly begin to feel inadequate and powerless.

A patient, thoughtful supervisor can go a long way toward preventing or relieving these feelings that often interfere with job performance as well as satisfaction. It is important to understand the ESL workers' position and realize that they want to express themselves clearly and be fully understood as much as anyone. They also want to understand well what you try to get across.

Use Clearer English

Thiederman says the best way to help ESL workers understand you better is to use simple vocabulary and sentence structure.

The more slowly and distinctly you speak, the more easily non-native English speakers will be able to understand you. Use pauses to let them digest what you have said and form responses. Enunciate clearly: "What did you say?" is much easier to understand than "Whudjyuhsay?" Be explicit: Say "yes" or "no," rather than "uh-huh" or "uh-uh."

The style of speaking can also help. Keep the tone calm and respectful. It is all right to emphasize key words, but consistent use of oversimplified, gramatically incorrect English may insult the listener's intelligence.

Visual aids can give the worker more ways to understand. Pictures, charts, and diagrams are all good bridge-builders. So is the written word. Writing down instructions or key ideas from meetings and phone calls gives ESL employees greater opportunity to grasp information fully.

Assess Understanding

George Bernard Shaw said, "The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished." Supervisors are often frustrated when ESL workers indicate they understand instructions, when in truth they do not.

Why don't they just say so? Because they do not want to look foolish, or to insult you by implying that you have not explained well enough. They may also worry that, even if you do explain it again, they still will not understand.

One way to know if ESL employees really understand is if their eyes are focused on you and they nod and smile appropriately. You can guess that they are not understanding if there are no interruptions or questions, or if they giggle inappropriately. Bear in mind that such laughter is rarely meant as a sign of disrespect, but much more frequently indicates embarrassment.

You can also ask listeners to repeat your instructions in their own words. Ask them to demonstrate their understanding, and follow up by observing their behavior on the job.

To check further for understanding, invite all of your employees to ask questions in private. Doing so can spare ESL workers the loss of face involved in publicly admitting they do not understand. Also, allow enough time for non-native English speakers to formulate their questions.

Help Employees Get Their Points Across

You also have to be able to interpret what an ESL worker is trying to tell you. Try these tips for helping ESL workers get their points across:

Another way to improve communications with non-native English speakers is to learn a few words of their language. Not the least of benefits from this is that it shows respect. Do not worry about making mistakes; show that it is all right to try a different language, even if one does not speak it perfectly. Your effort will give the workers a chance to teach you something.

Finally, help your ESL workers improve their English by encouraging them to speak it. Smile and look enthusiastic when you talk with them. If they seem embarrassed at their difficulties, look away for a moment to let them gather composure. Ask open-ended questions such as, "Tell me about..." to challenge them to express themselves beyond a simple "yes" or "no." And even if they laugh at their mistakes with the language, don't laugh at them yourself. Show that you respect their efforts, and better communication will be reinforced.

Supervising across language barriers is not easy. But you do not have to settle for a communication gap, waving futilely at non-native English speakers on the other side. Build bridges by using clear English, checking your comprehension, doing your best to understand all your ESL workers, and encouraging their efforts to speak English. By doing these things, you will be developing essential communication skills that will help you reach and be reached by everyone in your organization more strongly and effectively.


Back to: Contents | LMD Main Page | APMP Home