How to Train Learners Whose First Language is Not English: Part 1

In today’s global society, many learners are facing the challenge of participating in training programs delivered in English, which is not the language that they speak.


Since most of these learners have not been introduced to the vocabulary and concepts of English, comprehending the new content and learning may become problematic for them. A study by Kongsberg International School in Norway: Language Teaching Strategies and Techniques Used to Support Students Learning in a Language Other Than Their Mother Tongue noted that “…. if they are not understanding, they cannot be learning.”

As a leader in workplace learning and performance, Friesen, Kaye and Associates (FKA) has facilitated thousands of programs during the past 50 years. All programs that FKA offers are facilitated in English and several, in the curriculum, are also offered in French and Spanish. During this period, we have accumulated some tips and best practices from the programs offered in English, attended by participants whose first language is not English.

Facilitation Tips that will Help Learning:

The use of learner in the following best practices refers to those learners whose first language is not English.

An Effective Facilitator will:

  • Use natural language with the learner (tone and pitch).
  • Avoid asking learners “Do you understand?” They, like most individuals, will almost always say “yes” to avoid negative attention.
  • Attach meaning to what they say with gestures, actions, pictures, and objects.
  • Repeat similar sentences, phrases, and words, so the learner has more opportunity to hear and learn before going on to something new.
  • Give clear examples and demonstrations of the facilitator expects before asking the learner to perform. They will use FKA’s JIT X 3[1] formula for demonstrations.
  • Create a safe climate conducive to learning (keeping anxiety low for the learner).
  • Interact verbally with the learner when he/she is doing an activity in the classroom.
  • Value that culture is more than food, clothing and language. When the learner does something that is perceived to be irritating or different, it may likely be a learned cultural trait over which he/she has little control (i.e. not maintaining eye contact with the facilitator when the facilitator is speaking with them).
  • Add visual and kinesthetic support (exploring material through doing, writing, diagramming, and mapping) along with the language to assist in comprehension.
  • Allow the learners translation time when listening and speaking (i.e. when they are asked a question, they often translate the language they hear back to their native language, formulate a response and then translate that response into English).
  • Identify that there may be times when they are not able to get an idea across to the learner; the facilitator may need to call upon another learner of the same language to translate.
  • Pose a question to the whole class and ask learners to share answers with a partner. After learners have shared their answers with their partner, ask for individual responses. This allows the learner a chance to process the question and rehearse an answer in a lower-stress interaction.
  • Sometimes use overhead questions and sometimes use direct questions. Often learners find it easier to answer when called upon individually rather than volunteering an answer through the overhead style of response.
  • Encourage learners to sit next to a learner from a different culture rather than forming a cluster of learners from the same culture.
  • Monitor and coach other English learners on adjusting their speech, when using group activities.
  • Allow learners to use extra time to complete an assignment or in-class test, and offer this option to all learners.
  • Recognize when a learner may be struggling as a result of English language skills or cultural differences, and meet with the learner. Share concerns, listen to the learner’s perspective and clarify the expectation for learner performance. Watch for improvement.
  • Encourage struggling learners to record the lessons and to use online or other available resources.
  • Encourage struggling learners to work with other learners outside of the sessions.
  • Use drawings, dramatic gestures, actions, emotions, sketches, photographs and visual materials to reinforce key points.
  • Simplify the message by breaking it into smaller, manageable chunks.
  • Identify ways to make sure the learner’s attention is focused.

Other Strategies

  • Identify and provide access to the lesson so learners can read it at their own pace.
  • Use a defined order at the beginning of the session so the learner can begin to prepare what they are going to say and when they are going to speak. Having an awareness of when their turn will “come up” reduces some of the stress of speaking in a group.
  • Allow learners to take notes in their mother tongue.
  • Define words ahead of time that may be new words to the learner.
  • Provide ample one-on-one feedback to the learner.

In our next blog, we will review other tips and techniques that facilitators can use when presenting a program to learners whose first language is not English. We will identify best practices which focus on modifying speech, being an active listener and checking for understanding.

For a comprehensive list of best practices for training learners whose first language is not English, please email Geoff Nolan at




[1] Show and Tell.