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Effective communication is essential for a successful workplace. Employees with limited English proficiency are quite capable of contributing to a productive work environment with the appropriate support. It is critical that the employer determines the minimum level of English language skills — spoken and written — required to perform the job effectively. Remember language proficiency does not reflect education or ability to perform at work. This sets a clear expectation and standard for the employees who will then be hired. Hiring someone with less than the minimum level of language skills will likely frustrate supervisors, co-workers, and the employee as well as fail to meet the needs of the employer. If no English language skills are required for a position, it may be necessary for another staff person with bilingual skills to be designated to serve as an interpreter, lead worker, or mentor to ensure that instructions and expectations can be successfully communicated. Employers who proceed with the expectation that the limited English-speaking employee will “figure it out” or will learn English quickly are likely be disappointed.

Question: How long will it take my employee to learn English?
It takes time to learn a new language. How much time varies greatly from person to person. It can generally be assumed that most foreign-born adults not previously exposed to English need about two years to become comfortable with survival English.

Question: Why does learning English take so long?
Cultural, personal, and linguistic factors all contribute to the length of time it takes for someone to learn a language. Language learning is not a linear process. Individuals often have gaps in their abilities that must be overcome.

Cultural Factors

  • Cultural communities can “insulate” a learner from daily exposure to English.
  • Constant contact with family, friends, co-worker, shopkeepers, radio and newspapers in the native language can delay English language acquisition.
  • Relying on family and friends who speak the native language and some English makes survival easier.
  • Enormous cultural differences between a large American urban center and a small rural village in Africa, Asia, or Latin America can create extreme fear, isolation, and confusion that make English language acquisition a slow process.

Personal (Affective) Factors

  • Some refugees and immigrants believe they will eventually return to their homeland and do not need to learn English.
  • The learner may have a learning disability.
  • Psychological and emotional trauma from war and concern for relatives who remained behind can block the learning process.
  • The learner may have undetected physical disabilities, such as hearing loss.

Linguistic Factors

  • New language learners may have limited formal education and lack literacy in their native language.
  • Older people often have greater difficulty learning a new language.
  • A new language often means acquiring a new thought process and ideas in addition to a new vocabulary.

Question: Can we teach English learners certain vocabulary words?
Yes, but have patience; it may take time for the learner to understand and use the words correctly. Not only for vocabulary but for all language skills, passive skills (listening and reading) come more easily than active skills (speaking and writing). While your employees may be able to read and understand English, their ability to speak effectively may lag behind.

Question: Why is my employee’s accent so strong?
There are several possible causes of a strong accent.

  • Adults are less able to replicate new sounds. At birth, humans are capable of producing all the sounds of all natural languages. Children learn to produce and differentiate among only the sounds of their parents’ language. By a very early age, the physical ability to produce and differentiate between sounds of other languages is lost. After this point, it is nearly impossible for most second language speakers to speak without an accent.
  • The sound in question may not exist in the speaker’s native language. For example, the “th” sound of “this” and “these” does not exist in many other languages. This sound is therefore difficult for speakers of other languages to produce without an accent.
  • A distinction between two sounds in English may not exist in another language. In some Asian languages there is only one sound for ‘p’ and ‘f’ which sounds like a cross between the two. It is therefore difficult for speakers of those languages to hear or produce two different sounds in English.

Question: Should I correct my employee’s English?
The workplace is very different from the language classroom. While your employee’s English speaking ability will likely be enhanced on the job, the language classroom is a better atmosphere for concentrating on English language skills. If on-site English classes are available to the employee, then corrections should be left to the teaching professional. If not, consideration should be given to the following issues:

  • Employees may respond differently to being corrected, depending on personality, cultural background, educational background, and learning style. Some may prefer to be corrected while others may feel demeaned or patronized. All of these reactions are normal and valid. Talk to your employee about this issue.
  • Effective communication on the job is key. If an English language error impedes effective communication, work together to reach an understanding. If a grammatical error does not impede comprehension, you and your employee have succeeded — don’t worry about the mistake.
  • Correction should be limited to employment English — not informal conversation.

Learning the English Language
For native speakers of English, it is hard to grasp how difficult it is to learn English as a second language. Consider the following examples:

  1. The farm was used to produce.
  2. The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
  3. They were too close to the door to close it.
  4. After a number of injections my jaw got number.
  5. Upon seeing the tear in my clothes I shed a tear.

These sentences illustrate how words spelled the same may be pronounced differently and have different meanings. This lack of correspondence between spelling and pronunciation is only one aspect of learning English. English grammar, idioms, and writing conventions can also pose significant difficulties for the non-native speakers.

Following are some myths about languages and language learning, a summary of issues related to language learning, and some strategies for working with non-native speakers.

Myths about Language and English Language Learning

  • People with limited English language skills lack formal education.
  • People who do speak English in addition to their first language are better educated and more literate than their counterparts who do not speak English.
  • The vocabulary of other languages is not sufficient to express complicated ideas or describe technical equipment.
  • Vietnamese, Hmong, Cambodian, and Laotian people speak a common language.
  • Africans all speak a common language.
  • If a person with limited English ability smiles and nods during a conversation, he/she definitely understands.
  • Limited English speakers always indicate lack of understanding directly so miscommunication cannot take place.
  • Limited English speakers have friends or family who are fluent in English.
  • Limited English speakers are able to read English even if they do not speak it or because they speak it.
  • Command of survival English, such as ordering a meal and asking directions, ensures that a limited English speaker can negotiate a job interview or a clinic visit.
  • Interpreting is just saying the same thing in two languages.

Suggestions for Working with Limited English Speakers

  • Start at the beginning, explain all information and don’t assume immediate understanding.
  • Encourage questions and leave time for clarification and comments.
  • Speak clearly and slowly using a simplified vocabulary. Do not use slang, contractions or “broken” English.

Example
A typical American may give directions to a group of limited English speakers in the following manner:

“Come on in you guys and have a seat.  If you’ve gotta second I want ya ta fill out this thing. I’ll do my best to explain the sample. If you’ve gotta question or two, just wait til the end and I’ll get back to ya. Anything ya don’t know, just give it your best shot or leave it blank.”

Although this is how we really pronounce words in everyday speech, an approach that would be more easily understood might look like this:

“Please come in and sit down. This is an application. I will explain the sample.  Please wait to ask questions. If you don’t understand something, leave the line empty or write in the best answer.”

  • Give directions using a face to face approach (do not speak from across the room). This allows the speaker to assess understanding by using visual cues and to react with body language or a demonstration if lack of understanding is noted. It also eliminates embarrassment for both the speaker and the listener if the message must be repeated.
  • Minimize the use of idioms-some examples: “work like a dog,” “know the ropes,” “bite off more than you can chew,” and “save face.” These are common in everyday speech, but are confusing to most learners of English and might be taken literally.
  • Use charts, photos, or hands-on learning opportunities to clearly demonstrate messages.
  • Use open-ended questions to verify employee understanding instead of yes/no questions “Could you repeat the instructions we just talked about?” is more effective than “Do you understand what I said?”
  • Expect periods of silence while information is being “processed” or translated by a limited English-speaking employee. This is a normal reaction.
  • Initiate conversations, when possible, that are non-work related to build trust. It is can be trying sometimes to communicate with limited English speakers, but making an effort to build relationships is appreciated.
  • Learn how to correctly pronounce the names of all employees. This may take time and many mispronunciations, but immigrant employees will appreciate the effort and acknowledgement.
  • Try not to raise your voice when talking to limited English speakers. It is a natural response when you are not being understood, but it only increases the anxiety of the person you are talking to and increases miscommunication.

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