Language Barriers

I can’t go in there! I don’t speak their language. I won’t be able to teach English to someone who doesn’t speak it. Maybe I need to take a rain check…

Whether it’s your first time coming to English class to volunteer or you’re in line at the supermarket and notice a woman wearing a hijab standing next to you struggling to talk with the cashier, taking the leap to try to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language can be intimidating. But there are two great pieces of news! First, communicating is actually much less dependent on words than we make it out to be. And second, daring to make contact even when you can’t speak all the words will probably bless you more than you might ever expect. Oh, and a bonus: it gets easier the more you do it! 

So take a deep breath, smile, and walk towards that person. Here are some tips and pointers to consider as you engage with someone from a different language and culture:

  • Smile and look towards them kindly. An open face and body language communicate more than words ever could. 
  • Speak English, but speak slowly and use simple words. There is no need to speak more loudly; just speak slowly and clearly. 
  • Use simple phrases and eliminate excess details. What is the one main thing you want to say? State it as simply as you can, pause, and don’t be afraid to repeat it, slowly. 
  • Use body language to accompany what you’re saying. Use clues. A simple wave can indicate you want someone to come with you. Open arms indicate welcome. A hand over your heart can mean respect or honor if you accompany it with a slight nod and a greeting. 
  • Get on their side. If they’re sitting down in English class, sit down beside them and work alongside them. If you’re standing in the grocery line, come alongside them and offer to help. Being side by side can be less intimidating than face to face. 
  • Limit physical contact but generously give facial approval. Different cultures have different expectations for physical contact. Although physical proximity might feel safe and welcome to one person, it might feel unwelcome to another. So use your face to communicate through expressions and your hands to serve as visual demonstrators. 
  • Use pictures. If you have a smartphone, use photos to explain what you’re communicating. 
  • Demonstrate. If you’re explaining how to do something, walk your new friend through the steps of the procedure or movement while explaining it slowly. If you’re showing someone where to go, walk with them instead of just giving verbal directions. 
  • Stay calm. Don’t get loud or frustrated. If you’re helping someone in a tense situation, your tension will communicate to them without words at all. Instead, stay calm, be patient, and show by your body language that you are not afraid or stressed. As you remain calm, your calmness will spread to those around you.
  • Watch to see how they react and follow their cues and body language to understand what they’re communicating to you. 
  • Just enjoy being present. This is a big one if you’re visiting the home of a new friend who doesn’t speak much English. There will be awkward silences when words run out. That’s ok. Embrace the silence and just smile and be present with each other. 
  • Recognize how much they can do, even if one thing they cannot yet do is speak English. They probably speak multiple other languages - try asking about which ones. Don’t be surprised when they list off four or five.
  • Be patient. As you build a relationship with this friend who doesn’t speak English, their English will grow, and your ability to communicate without all the words will also grow. 

Whether it’s in English class, at the store, in an airport, or on a home visit, never underestimate how much your presence and effort will communicate. We all want a friend. Allow your presence and your love to speak more than words ever can.