Speaking with clients who have low English proficiency
Key questions before you start
Wherever possible, find out as much as you can about the person with whom you will be speaking. The more you know, the
better the information you can provide. Some key questions to ask include:
• What languages does the client speak, other than English?
• What is their ethnicity and cultural background?
• What is their experience with your service?
• How comfortable are they with communicating in English? Will this comfort level change with the length or complexity
of the communication?
• Are they able to read in their preferred language, or in English?
• What issues will you be discussing?
Preparing for your communication
• Find out as much as you can about your client, including answers to the questions above.
• Be clear about what you want your client to understand at the end of the communication.
• Write down the main messages you wish to give and make sure you can explain them simply.
• Consider different ways to communicate your messages.
• If suitable, provide written materials in English, in the client’s preferred language or both.
When you speak
Many people are able to understand English when it is spoken clearly but become confused when the speaker
talks too fast or slurs their words. Moderate your speech by practising the following techniques:
• Speak at a consistent and measured pace.
• Do not speak too softly or too loudly.
• Speak each word as a separate word; try not to run words into each other.
•Enunciate words clearly. Be Sure to finish each word so that the tense of the words are clear to the listener.
• Face your client when you speak. If you must walk away for any reason, stop speaking and do not resume
until you are again facing your client.
The English language is full of inconsistencies, ambiguities and multiple meanings. Many terms that we use everyday
can be confusing to people who are learning the language. Preparation and care are needed just to speak simply.
• Avoid acronyms (eg HACC, DHS) or explain them if you must use them.
• Do not use slang.
• Avoid technical or conceptual terms (eg ‘respite care’, ‘intervention’). If you must use them, explain what they
mean in a simple way.
• Make sentences short and clear. Communicate one idea per sentence.
• Try not to ask closed questions (questions that require only a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer). Ask questions that require an
answer in the form of a sentence. For example, ‘Did you take your medicine today?’ will not give you as much
information as ‘What medicines have you taken today?’
• Be mindful that a smile, a nod and a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer many not mean what you expect them to mean. Cultural
practices can vary when it comes to answering direct questions: it may be seen as more polite or appropriate to seem
agreeable than to give a negative response.
Checking for understanding
• Inform the client that they can ask you to clarify information and provide further explanations.
• Observe body language and expressions to gauge whether the client understands what you have said – be mindful,
however, that body language can vary between cultures.
• Ask the client to repeat important points to check that they have understood the information. For example: “I want to be
sure I have explained these exercises to you properly. Can you please show me what exercises you need to do each day? ”
• Allow the client time to listen, think and respond, both to questions and to statements.
If the client requires the use of an interpreter, it is your responsibility to ensure that this service is provided. For tips on
how to assess the need for an interpreter, arrange a qualified interpreter, and work with interpreters, refer to our Language
Services tip sheets, available on our Knowledge Hub.
Building relationships with clients can be a delicate task. Trust is integral to effectively carrying out our work professionally, but what happens when we bring an interpreter into the scenario? Find out in this article.
During workshops, we find that questions like “Does that make sense?” often fall short of revealing the true picture. ‘Teach-back’ is a simple yet powerful tool which allows for far better communication. Read this month’s blog to know more about this tool.
The Cultural Competence Reflection Tool (CCRT) for practitioners provides an opportunity for workers to reflect on their knowledge and skills in relation to working with clients from migrant and refugee background.
An important aspect of working with interpreters is debriefing. Interpreters frequently tell us, they really value a briefing well done.So don’t be afraid of providing feedback at the end of the engagement.
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