8 Tips for Training Across Language Barriers

Christian Arno

You may find yourself in a situation where you have to deliver training to a group of people who do not speak the same language. This is becoming more common as businesses outsource roles overseas and use guest labor from all over the world. While it may be a more challenging task than training people who understand your own language, it is by no means impossible to deliver effective training to a multilingual group. Here are some tips to help you.

Pitch it at the right level
You need to know the level of language understanding of the group you are training. Try to ascertain exactly how much English (if any) they understand. You could do this with a simple exercise like having the group introduce themselves individually, or maybe a simple questionnaire. Once you know the level of their English understanding, you can pitch your training appropriately.

Speak clearly
You need to speak clearly and pronounce your words correctly. Do not speak any louder than you normally would when addressing a group, and certainly do not shout. Turning up the volume does not lead to better understanding. You should also avoid over-pronouncing your words or speaking in an unnaturally slow way. Try to avoid using "fillers" ("um...," "like...," "yeah, totally..."), which could confuse non-native English speakers. Try not to run words together (Do-ya wanna get-a-coffee), because knowing where one word ends and the next begins is one of the biggest challenges when listening to a foreign language. Be sure to repeat the important points of your training material several times using different words, if possible.

Use plain language
Avoid using acronyms, slang and jargon, which may be very difficult to explain to a multilingual group. Also avoid "management speak" and idiomatic phrases, the meanings of which can be quite subtle, for example, "between a rock and a hard place," "at the end of the day," "let's drill down on that," and "the bottom line." Choose simple words instead of more complex ones. For example, "big" is an easier word than "enormous." Avoid using the short form of certain phrases. For example, non-native English speakers might be confused by "can't," "won't" and "didn't"; it is much clearer if you use the long forms.

Use visual aids
Using visual, non-spoken communication can be a useful tool for getting information across. This can include practical demonstrations, use of videos, pictures and props. Not only will visual aids be a useful way of communicating, they can also help your trainees to remember the material you have covered. Visual aids may also help the group to improve their English, if you explain what is being represented and have them repeat your words.

Encourage class participation
By having the group participate in practical exercises you can assess how much they have understood and give them comments and feedback. This is particularly useful if you are teaching skills or particular tasks. Once you have explained it, have them do it for themselves.

Give handouts
Give your trainees something to take away with them that summarizes the training you have covered. This gives them the opportunity to review the material and study it in their own time. They may also be able to have someone translate any parts they failed to understand in the training room.

Understand cultural differences
Be mindful of cultural differences within the group you are training and avoid using cultural references they may not understand. For example, a group of Europeans may not understand American sporting metaphors or references to American TV and celebrities. Also, if you attempt to use references to their own culture, make sure they are correct and do not cause offense.

Use an interpreter
Sometimes you may be able to use an interpreter to translate in real-time. This may be a professional, or there could be a member of the group who has better English and can translate for his or her colleagues. For some types of critical training, like health and safety, you need to be certain that the trainees have understood, and this may only be achieved by bringing in an interpreter, for at least some of the training.