Crossing the Language Barrier

Every single staff person and volunteer with Refugee Services confronts the language barrier every day. We know that dealing with language barriers is one of the biggest apprehensions that new volunteers and churches have, and it can be hard to imagine how you will communicate without a shared language. Here, we share with you some of the strategies that we employ on a daily basis.

Use the non-verbals:

Non-verbal communication is such a huge part of how everyone communicates on a daily basis, whether or not we’re using a shared spoken language. A kind expression and welcoming smile go a long way in showing someone that we care about them and are willing to be patient. Similarly, expressions and body language can provide  clues that someone might be feeling overwhelmed, confused, or discouraged about a challenge or decision they are facing. These cues are  important to recognize as we help refugees navigate a whirlwind of new experiences in their first days in Minnesota.

A little bit goes a long way:

Learning just a few words in a refugee’s language can be very meaningful! Many of our staff have learned a few key phrases in Somali, Karen, and other common refugee languages. Hearing a familiar greeting is such an encouragement to new arrivals, and it shows that we are willing to make an effort to understand them in their first language too. Given that refugees are expected to learn English so quickly, it’s an incredibly kind and meaningful gesture to learn a few words of their language.

Find a common ground:

Speaking together in a language that is neither person’s first language is another strategy that we commonly employ. In some cases, English is the common ground. For others, Thai, Arabic, Swahili, or French might be the common language that opens up new avenues of communication.

Be patient and creative:

Communicating with a new refugee who doesn’t speak English takes extra time, regardless of whether you have an interpreter. We learn to be patient with the process and take the time needed to fully understand each other. It also means being creative in finding multiple ways to explain a word or concept. It’s amazing how many ways you can say the same thing, but it takes a little creativity to find a way to explain something using the simplest language you can.

Find an interpreter:

We often call upon other staff in the office or paid interpreters when there are important details to relay that need to be presented in an individual’s first language. When you are explaining public benefits or an important application, precision and accuracy are critically important, so it is important to make sure the information is clearly conveyed. A trusted neighbor, friend, family member, or even website may also serve as an interpreter!

Language can be a barrier in working with newly arrived refugees, but since there are so many ways to communicate with and without interpreters, we shouldn’t let this barrier stop us from communicating!

What other strategies have you employed in your experiences?


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