Whether in K-12 education or at graduate school level, teachers at some point may be assigned non-English speaking students. Needless to say, the language barrier is going to present some difficulties. Communication, though, isn’t just about the spoken word. There are methods for getting your point across even if you and a student don’t speak the same tongue. Use these techniques to create a rich learning experience for students whose English is less than fluent.
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1. Use gestures
Body gesturing is an effective mode of communication. If using a story to illustrate a point, for example, placing your hands on your hip or crossing your arms can convey discontent, while an open-mouthed, wide-eyed stare expresses surprise. Be careful, though, as gestures that mean one thing in western culture can have a completely different meaning elsewhere. The “okay” hand gesture, for instance, is considered an obscene sign in Brazil and is as offensive to Brazilians as the middle finger is to westerners.
2. Speak slowly and clearly
Speak as you normally would but at a slightly slower pace. Don’t exaggerate the words but do be sure to say them in their entirety. You may, however, exaggerate certain sounds that may otherwise sound identical to a non-native speaker. This is important because words like “pet” and “pit” may sound indistinguishable to a beginning English learner. In fact, it may help to write the two words on the board and point to each word as you’re saying them slowly and clearly. The above video illustrates a good way of doing this.
3. Use short sentences
Do use short sentences. This helps the student digest the information. It also helps with comprehension. This will prevent the student from becoming discouraged. Short sentences help students divide the information into chunks.
Don’t use long and drawn out sentences that make it hard for the student to digest the information and affect his or her comprehension while also making the student feel discouraged because he or she will be unable to break the information down into smaller chunks.
4. Be careful with idioms
Idioms are a fancy way of communicating in spoken English. However, they create confusion for non-English speaking students. This isn’t to say you can’t ever use them; just be sure they’re almost universally known among native speakers and explain to the student their meaning to avoid confusion. It may also be helpful to let the student know that idioms are commonly used in everyday speech, though much less so in written English.
5. Politely correct mistakes
If the student makes an error while speaking, point at him or her and laugh while encouraging other students to do the same. Just kidding! An easy way to correct the student is to repeat what the student said in the correct way and have him or her repeat it back the way you said it.
6. Use online translation services
Use a free service like Google Translate to translate sentences. Don’t rely too much on it, though, as the translation produces imperfect grammar that may affect the student’s reading comprehension. By all means, use it to get a meaning across, but don’t use it for translating full documents or lecture transcripts.
7. Assign a buddy
If you have a packed classroom, it may not always be feasible to help the student without slowing down the rest of the class. You can, however, assign the student a buddy. Ideally, this student should speak the student’s native language. If not, have the buddy use any of the aforementioned methods. Be sure you designate a buddy who is patient, courteous, friendly, and really doesn’t mind working with the student.