The more people I have spoken to about what I do, the more professionals in the industry have asked me how they can support their ESL team members. This blog post will explore 3 ways you can be more supportive of the team members and colleagues who have English as a second language.
1 Offer to be a mentor to an ESL team member or fellow ESL student.
2 Make an effort to be more aware of the language you are using.
3 Listen more. Show empathy, understanding and an interest in different cultures and cultural understandings.
1. Offer to be a mentor to an ESL team member or fellow ESL student.
If you've been working for a few years and you can see an ESL professional is frustrated, offer to help them. It doesn't always have to be a formal mentor situation, but it could be an informal catch-up or just letting them know they can make a specific time with you. We are all busy so setting aside particular times can assist with several interruptions in a day. If they need help with particular tasks such as emails or making phone calls provide them with opportunities to practice these skills in dedicated meeting times.
If your client has English as a second language, always try to offer communication in a written format to avoid misunderstandings. Simple diagrams and text on plans can help you when presenting but also help them to understand more of the context while you're speaking.
Try to also speak in plain English. Speaking in plain English can be challenging because architects tend to use a lot of jargon and design speak. Think about ways you can simplify your language. After a meeting let them know you will send them a follow-up email and also tell them why you are sending it to them. In some cultures, this isn't standard practice and can mean something different from what we assume.
2. Be more aware of the language you are using.
Communication is a two-way street, so it's also your responsibility to check for understanding. Share the responsibility of the discussion and don't just assume everyone knows what you mean. Try saying things like:
"I just want to make sure I've been clear, can you explain how you understand what I need from you?
Just so I'm sure I've made sense can you explain what you understood?
"Does that make sense to you?" "Sorry, sometimes I can speak so fast, let me know if I'm not making myself clear.
Make sure to say thank you for clarifying:
Thanks for clarifying. I understand better now.
Thank you for repeating that. It makes sense to me now. Sorry, I just wanted to be sure.
Equally, try and put the responsibility of the understanding on you:
Let me see if I understood correctly.
I’d just like to confirm that I got that right.
We also tend to use a lot of phrasal verbs and expressions in English that aren't literal so people who speak English as a second language can be distracted or disrupted by the sudden use of unfamiliar terminology. Of course, it's natural to use them in speech but it pays to be more aware of it. For example, this is a real example of a conversation I had with an architect:
We knocked up a concept yesterday arvo but I'm not sure the client will take us up on the idea.
Meaning: We did a concept yesterday afternoon very quickly but I'm not sure if the client will like the idea.
3. Listen more. Show empathy, understanding and an interest in different cultures and cultural understandings.
Show an interest in the different cultures of your ESL colleagues. Ask them questions about various projects and business culture where they are from and listen to their experiences.
Many of my students (and myself included) feel that when you live in a culture where you're learning the language, people can forget or not think about how hard and challenging it can be to adapt to a new culture. It's easy to feel isolated, and as though, no one understands or cares about where you're from even though this can be such an essential part of someone's identity and their understandings. We tend to see the world through a lens through which we grew up in so it certainly helps when someone shows an interest in where we come from
You're more likely to make ESL professionals feel more included, more valued and understood when you ask them about where they are from and their culture. By committing to listen and to understand you'll be developing skills essential for dealing with people which is such a vital part of being a designer.
One book I highly recommend is The Culture Map by Erin Meyer which has been invaluable in my understandings of how people (on the whole) communicate across cultures. Another interesting exercise to do is the Cultural mapping tool to see how the concepts discussed in the book differ between cultures.
I used this tool myself to map some of the different cultures I work with and within, and it has helped me to understand why certain cultures communicate differently. When I mapped Australia against Thailand and then English speaking countries against China, I was able to create a visual image and understanding of how I could adapt my English teaching to consider these important factors. As you can see below the communication tendencies show a noticeable difference.
I then mapped my own personality against the cultural tendencies in Australia, and I wasn't surprised to find that I fit all of the different concept areas perfectly.
Recent industry events such as Parlour's Navigating Cultural Differences discussion (available online) have also offered such valuable insight and discussions on how workplaces manage cultural differences.
Training and Professional development
Do you want to provide professional development training for your employees to help them with their English communication confidence? Send me an email today to find out more.