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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

How to explain multiple abstract points.

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

Clients whose first language isn't English are easily overwhelmed by lengthy abstract explanations, even if their English level is good enough to manage without an interpreter.

If you have information which you're obliged to explain, bear in mind that it is tiring for those clients to receive it all verbally.


Bespoke advice

Whenever I provide training for clients, part of the course looks at the particular difficulties they face and provides practical suggestions based on their context. These tips come from the training I provided for advisors at Employability Durham.

Is there any simple way to explain data protection?

Employability Durham are working with growing numbers of Ukrainian refugees, who have permission to work in the UK but really benefit from some support becoming ready for work. The first appointment is the hardest because they have to explain their role and how they can help, as well as confidentiality and data protection. They have translations of forms which really help, but they need to explain this information verbally too.

Ten things you can do

I hope that everyone who has to explain complex information will benefit from these suggestions.

  1. Use a visual hook where possible (Eg point to your lanyard when explaining who you work for.)

  2. Present important points more than once (Eg give them a translated explanation of your confidentiality policy but explain it verbally too)

  3. Take your lead from what they know already, so the topic is more familiar to them (Eg ask 'Do you know what we do here?)

  4. Make the information less abstract by making it relevant to their life (Eg instead of saying 'we are funded by the council' say 'this service is free because the council pays for it.')

  5. Check your assumptions (Eg don't assume they know that your service is free. Why would they?)

  6. Have realistic time expectations (Eg assign two appointment slots instead of one, to make time for cultural differences and extra explanations)

  7. Make full use of comparisons where possible (Eg Do you know the job centre? We're different...")

  8. Keep it interactive by asking questions (Eg "How long are your appointments at the job centre?" /"10 minutes" / "Appointments here are longer, probably an hour."

  9. Think carefully about how you phrase things (Eg Don't say "I'll run this past my boss" because phrasal verbs are tricky. Don't say "Keep me posted" because idioms are tricky too.)

  10. Check they've understood each point before moving on to the next (because it's harder for people to interrupt or ask questions in their second language.)

Don't sidestep interpreters

It's important to remember that if their English level requires one, you should book an interpreter. Especially if you're explaining anything legal, medical or financial. We provide training to help you get the most out of interpreter services.

What are the specific problems of your workplace?

What do you need from English Unlocked? How do you currently overcome language barriers, and how could you improve that? This workshop was called 'How to speak to learners of English' - it is just one of the workshops on offer to help you engage better with clients (or colleagues) whose first language isn't English. Get in touch to request your free fifteen minute fact-finder.


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