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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

How not to be patronising

Updated: May 4, 2020

Do you work with refugees and asylum seekers? Do you have overseas clients? I train staff to communicate with those who have Limited English Proficiency, and I often get asked the same question. How can I slow down my English without dumbing it down.? It is a delicate balancing act. Learn how to speak slowly without being patronising using these tips.

Begin with a little role reversal.

If you have time, start by asking how they pronounce their name and trying to say it. Even names you think you know how to say, like Mohammed, may have surprises if you really listen. Have a go, and get some feedback. What you’re doing is-

· Showing that you see they are an individual, not just another difficult conversation

· Positioning yourself as the person who doesn’t know something, and them as the expert.

· Acknowledging that while you may have the power advantage in this conversation, if you were in their country it would be the other way around.

Always check their level.

One of the most condescending things you can do is presume their English is worse than it really is. You can gauge their level by asking “How much English can you speak?” or using chit chat questions. Things like ‘What’s the weather like outside?’ or ‘Have you had far to come?’ Try saying that one really fast if you suspect they have native level fluency.

Let’s imagine that you’ve checked their level and it seems very low. You need to know how to speak slowly. Your listener is going to be watching your body language very closely, so whatever happens..

Don't roll your eyes.

This is so obvious that you may think I’m patronising my readers even to mention it. But I think it's very human to have a little 'Give me strength' moment in a situation like this, and to imagine that your listener doesn’t notice, but given the fact that they're watching you like a hawk, they probably will notice. If your frustration leaks out, that's patronising.

Just say it again but louder.

Not really.

This is a running joke among most native English speakers. We joke that it is the obvious solution, but of course it isn’t, and I really hope that you're not in the habit of doing that. Speak more clearly but don't raise your voice.

Don't over enunciate

Almost as patronising as raising your voice, what many people do is EM. PHA. SISE. EV. E. RY. SY. LLA. BLE. This way of speaking is very unnatural and it distorts the way the words sound, which is even worse than shouting. Lip readers hate it too. Combined with a wide eyed stare and wild gesturing it can give the impression that you are about to blow a gasket because you are dealing with an idiot. If you’re speaking to someone with hardly any English it’s going to be stressful, but try not to act like Basil Fawlty.

Chill out a bit.

Watch your facial expression - are you staring intently? Are your eye brows permanently raised? Are you leaning forward? You need to relax a little. When I train people to communicate better with those who have Limited English Proficiency I give everyone a mirror and ask them to speak into it slowly. You might be surprised to discover that you look a bit desperate. If so, your non English speaking listener may feel patronised.

Slow down in a calm and measured way.

Say less, pause more, and leave wider word boundaries than normal. Let the silence stretch out and take a deep breath. If you appear to be unrattled, it sends the impression that you have every confidence in the intelligence of your listener and are sure that together you’ll get there in the end. (Maybe you won’t get there in the end. But if you act as though you think you will, it gives the impression that you’re talking to an equal and enables your non English speaking client to relax.)

Don’t pretend to understand.

It isn’t patronising to admit that you don’t understand, just please don’t do it with a pitying glance or an eye roll. Think about it - when people are equals they don’t usually pretend to understand each other.

If you admit that you don’t understand what they just said, it puts the ball back in their court. If you listen patiently as they try again, it shows you care what they have to say. On the other hand, if you just nod and pretend, they will probably notice. They might assume that you don’t care what they say, or expect it to be irrelevant, or boring. Then they feel patronised.

Don't talk over them.

It's doubly hard not to do this when you're a fluent English speaker and they aren't, because it's hard for them to get a word in - politely interrupting in a foreign language is an advanced skill. You need to be extra vigilant for their desire to chip in and give them plenty of space to do so. If you speak over them, it sends the message that your voice is more important than theirs, and that’s patronising.

Don’t just talk to their husband..

..or their child, or their confident friend. If someone with Limited English Proficiency has brought along another person to help, the focus can shift onto that person. If they are just there to interpret, keep your attention on the one who speaks less English by using your body position and eye contact.

Don't dumb down your grammar

“Me go outside now. One minute. You wait here, no move.”

Please, whatever you do, don’t go all 'Me Tarzan, you Jane.' I know English is tricky and you feel sorry for your listener and would like to make things easy for them, but I can think of fewer things which are more patronising than speaking like Tarzan. I have seen husbands speak to their foreign wives like this and I find myself offended on the wife’s behalf. Leaving out any extra words is helpful, but some words are grammatically necessary. If you find yourself distorting English grammar when you slow down, your listener may feel patronised. Please only resort to it as your very last resort.

Don't use child like language/ sing song intonation.

I once worked with an ESOL teacher who had a background in primary education and it really showed. She spoke to the students like they were four years old, her voice rose and fell as though she were telling a fairy tale. If you’re dealing with an adult, please put away your twinkly eyed smile and your cooing voice. How would you feel if you went to France and they all spoke to you like that?

Assume your listener is intelligent.

I hope that these tips are useful – they all rest upon the same premise. That you regard your listener to be your equal. Your listener isn’t stupid just because they can't speak English well yet. It is a happy accident that English is the international language, one we all benefit from whenever we travel, but it doesn’t mean that we are superior. If someone has lived here for years and still not learnt English, it’s because their community has acted like a buffer. Think of all the British ex-pats living in Spain who can’t speak Spanish very well. Aren't they just the same?

Plug your skills gap.

English Unlocked provides workplace training for staff who work with non-Anglophone clients. Two kinds of training are currently available which can help you to transcend the language barrier-

1. How to communicate better with those who have Limited English Proficiency will show you and your team how to speak slowly without dumbing down your English. It includes the tips listed here plus many more.

2. Interpreters are an expensive resource. How to work effectively with an interpreter is a half day course which will show your staff how to make the most of interpreters, recognise competence in interpreters, and work in harmony with them.

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