How to Train Learners Whose First Language is Not English: Part 2

Part of the richness for many organizations today is the variety of languages and cultures that are represented in their business. Cultural sensitivity and the competence to deal with such differences are important skills for L&D professionals. More than ever, language and cultural differences are influencing how workplace learning programs are designed and delivered to effectively support learning.

As a facilitator, this means that there is a very good chance that you will be presenting and instructing to participants in your programs that may not share the same culture as you and whose first language is not English.

In an earlier blog, we discussed some of the ways effective facilitators can help the learning process for learners whose first language is not English.


The following is a list of additional tips and techniques to keep in mind:


 Modify your speech

  • Talk at a slow-to-normal pace; write a reminder in your notes to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n.
  • Speak clearly and pronounce your words correctly.
  • Use a pleasant tone; speak in a calm and quiet manner.
  • Use simple sentence structure (subject-verb-object).
  • Speak in short, grammatically correct sentences.
  • Use names of people rather than pronouns (i.e. “Jin, can you add to what Ichiro said” versus “can you add to what he said”).
  • Pause after phrases or short sentences, not after each word. You do not want to distort the rhythm of the language and message.
  • Recognize that people wrongly think that turning up the volume somehow creates instant understanding. Raising your voice does not help comprehension.
  • Do not cover, hide your mouth, or turn away from the learners because learners will want to watch you as you pronounce your words.
  • Avoid using the passive voice and complex sentences. (i.e. Active Voice: The executive committee approved the new safety policy versus Passive Voice: The new safety policy was approved by the executive committee).
  • Avoid running words together (i.e. “Do-ya wanna eat-a-pizza”). A big challenge for learners is knowing where one word ends and the next one begins so give them a small pause between words if they seem to be struggling.
  • When possible, opt for simple words instead of ones that are complex. The more basic the word is, the better chance that it will be understood. (i.e. “big” is a better choice than “enormous”; “make” is better than “manufacture”). However, with a ‘romance’ language learner (i.e. Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian), these complex words can be useful as they are rooted in Latin.
  • Present data in the standard measurements of the countries represented. Miles in the U.S. versus kilometers in Canada and Europe; gallons versus liters etc. ”Soccer” is a term used in North America but it is known as “football” in most other areas.
  • Avoid verb phrases that sound very similar to the learner (i.e. “look out” sounds very close to “look for” and both are similar to “look out for”.… so …. look out=be careful; look for =search; look out for=watch for).
  • Avoid using filler words and colloquialisms (i.e. “hum” or “like” “yeah” “eh”).
  • Do not use idioms like “cash cow” or “fat chance”. Learning the meaning of idioms for the learner is difficult and often misunderstood.
  • If asked to repeat something, first repeat it as you said it the first time. It could be that the learner simply didn’t hear you. If the learner still didn’t understand, change a few key words in the sentence.
  • If asked to repeat, repeat the whole sentence and not just the last couple of words. Although time consuming, it helps prevent confusion.
  • Avoid using contractions or short forms. (i.e. use the long form “cannot” versus “can’t”. Learners have difficulty determining the difference in a sentence).
  • Be explicit. Say “yes” or “no”. do not say “uh-huh” or “uh-uh”.
  • If you have something very important to convey, try speaking one-on-one with the learner.
  • Accept one-word answers or gestures.
  • Avoid acronyms; if it is absolutely necessary to use an acronym, explain what it is first and show the words and acronym visually in a PowerPoint slide and/or participant manual.

Be an active listener

  • Give full attention to the learner and make every effort to understand his/her attempts to communicate.
  • Be patient and smile. Demonstrate your patience through your facial expression and body language.
  • Be aware that other cultures have different standards regarding touching, eye contact and personal space.
  • Encourage learners to act out or to draw pictures to get their meaning across.
  • Don’t jump in to “supply the words” for the learner.
  • If the learner’s response is heavily accented when stating an important procedure, support by repeating the response correctly (i.e. “if siren happens, make good disconnect soon” would be repeated as “if there is an alarm, disconnect immediately”).
  • Resist the urge to over correct. This will inhibit the learner over time and they will be less willing to speak.
  • Allow learners to use a bilingual dictionary if appropriate.

Check understanding frequently

  • Give clear, simply directions to follow and ask more closed questions that require only a one or two-word answer.
  • Don’t ask “do you understand?” This is usually not a reliable check since many learners will nod “yes” even when they don’t really understand.
  • Set a climate for learners to ask for clarification; “could you repeat that please?” “Would you help me please?” “I don’t understand,” “Slow down please.” Establish these as a Ground Rule (a normal rule of engagement).
  • Write down or show questions in PowerPoint or in their manuals so learners have a visual as well as auditory input.
  • Pay attention to the learner’s non-verbal messages (raised eye brow or shaking of head or puzzled look) which may indicate confusion.

It is also a nice gesture to begin the session by saying a few words in the language of the learners whose mother tongue is not English. It could be as simple as “Good morning”, “Hola” or Bonjour”. This lets the learner know that the facilitator recognizes that different languages are represented in the room, and can set a friendly environment conducive to learning.

Globalization means that multilingual participants in L&D programs are now increasingly common. This could provide a unique challenge for facilitators and presenters. How can the message be delivered clearly and understood by the participants without dumbing down the topic or patronizing the learners?

From our experience, following these basic best practices can ensure learners whose first language is not English will be more engaged in the learning process and will leave the program with a greater understanding of the content presented.

If you would like to have a comprehensive list of best practices for training learners whose first language is not English, please connect with Geoff Nolan at


FKA President
Michael Nolan