In many professional contexts, you may encounter clients whose first language is different from yours. Being aware of language barriers to understand their needs is the key to providing quality service. This article offers advice on how to facilitate communication with clients who have language barriers to overcome.
Understanding the barriers
The first step is understanding your client’s unique context, the obstacles they face and their communication needs. Taking the time to identify and acknowledge their difficulties will help you build trust and establish a solid foundation for communication.
The most apparent barrier to communication for clients speaking in a second or new language is a lack of fluency. Your client will likely have different levels of fluency in speaking, understanding, reading and writing. Take the time to learn which means of communication they are most comfortable with and use them in your practice whenever possible.
As with any client, understanding their cultural background will help you provide a more tailored service. Acknowledge differences and take an interest in them, rather than trying to diminish or ignore them. Bear in mind that, as well as facing language barriers, your client may be experiencing culture shock stemming from a loss of community and bearings. Your empathy and respect for their situation will help them feel more at ease.
Lack of access
Many people face obstacles when it comes to accessing language training, tools, integration activities, etc. Remember that your client may not have control over this situation and that this can have an impact on their ability to communicate. Share resources with your customers if you have them, and show empathy when they express frustration about this obstacle.
Language learning is a sensitive subject because language is intrinsically linked to culture, and therefore to identity. When a person from a cultural minority has to learn the predominant language (for work, school, etc.), this can pose a dilemma. Being sensitive to these issues of communication and integration is essential.
“For Indigenous communities, the challenge is twofold: on the one hand, they must protect, promote and enhance the value of Indigenous languages and, on the other, meet the demands of a competitive labor market where bilingualism is a sought-after skill.”
Learning a new language or expressing oneself in a foreign language is a challenge that can lead to blockages that are frustrating for both you and your client. However, it's important to note that your client probably has a proficient ability to express themselves in their first language and not being able to do so in this context can be particularly frustrating for them. It is therefore necessary to use communication strategies that do not diminish your client’s experience or downplay their overall ability to express themselves.
By being open to making adjustments to your communication approach and adapting it to your client's needs, you can demonstrate a willingness that is likely to be reciprocated.
Use clear and simple language
This applies to all clients. As you get to know your client, you will become familiar with their vocabulary which will help you avoid future blockages. You can even learn a few words in their first language to meet them halfway (if you feel comfortable, of course).
Avoid jargon, slang, and idioms
These are such a common part of our vocabulary that we don’t even notice them! Try to be aware of them and avoid them when you can, or stop and explain if you see that your message is not being understood.
Rely on your active listening skills
Avoid rushing or interrupting, and ask clarifying questions. This will help you ensure that you understand your client's needs and will encourage them to do the same!
Use visual aids
When verbal language is the main barrier to communication, you can lean on other forms of communication, such as images, diagrams or videos, to convey information.
Provide written materials in your clients' first language
A language task can take much longer to complete in a second language. It's important to bear this in mind if you plan on giving documents or assignments. Think about your intention beyond their language. You can call on professional translators and online translation tools such as DeepL to help you write and understand written communications.
Use translation tools
If communication is blocked during an in-person meeting, translation apps such as Google Translate can be used to move past it. If your situation allows, you may consider hiring a professional interpreter.
Refer your client
If you feel that you may not be the best person to help your client, don’t hesitate to recommend another professional or colleague who could be better suited to meet their needs.
English Content Specialist, B.A.
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