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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

How to explain unfamiliar concepts to people who are learning English

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

Have you ever tried to talk to an asylum seeker about volunteering? Or mentioned Health Visitors to someone from Romania? Volunteering and Health Visitors are both examples of concepts which do not exist everywhere in the world. If your job involves helping people who have moved here from abroad, explaining such concepts can be tricky (especially if your client doesn't speak English fluently). In this article I'll demonstrate two techniques which might help.

Who needs help with this?

At English Unlocked we train staff to communicate more clearly with clients who are learning English. We always ask our clients how we can tailor the training to meet their needs, and recently we've been asked twice for help with the same issue. Both Careers Wales and West End Refugee Service asked us for tips on how to explain the concept of volunteering to people who come from countries where such a thing doesn't exist.

The problem

Imagine that you're an asylum seeker. It means you don't have permission to earn money and so you are stuck at home all day with nothing to do. Your English is not getting any better because you hardly ever mix with English speakers, and if one day you are allowed to look for work it will be hard without references or work experience in this country. Volunteering could really help you, but in your country nobody works without pay so the concept is hard for you to grasp.

My suggestion

This is how I would explain volunteering to someone from abroad if they had an 'Entry 2' English level. Watch the video and try to identify the techniques I'm using, then read an explanation of them below.

Technique 1: ask don't tell.

The first hurdle is getting your client to realise that things are different here, and a good way to do that is by asking them about their country of origin. By doing this you kill two birds with one stone-

  • you avoid making assumptions about their country. (Maybe volunteering does exist there, it's just a little different?)

  • You find out what they do have in their country which might be similar or different, and use this as your starting point. This helps them to see what you're getting at by relating it to what they already know.

Did you also notice?

My use of facial expression and unhurried pace. The gaps and turn taking. The words I'm choosing, and the ones I'm avoiding. The way that I signposted the word 'volunteering.' These techniques all help, and our communication training includes all these and more.

Don't say

Does volunteering exist in your country?

Do say

In your country, do people work without pay?

Technique 2: The power of examples.

The concrete is much easier to understand than the abstract, and examples are a great way to make an abstract concept concrete. By using examples you are also able to explain the benefits of volunteering (your client may feel offended or dismayed by the suggestion they should work for free.)

Which other concepts are tricky?

There are many concepts and services which can confuse and surprise people who grew up outside the UK, here are just a few-

  • Unemployment benefit (some countries don't have a benefits system)

  • Respite care, hospices and care homes

  • Physiotherapy and rehabilitation.

  • The jury system (in most countries the judge has all the say.)

  • Mental health services

  • Foster care

  • Parent, Teachers and Friends Associations (PTFAs)

If you have to explain one of the above to someone from a country where it doesn't exist, why not adapt the techniques you've seen me use here? Or even better, book some training for your team and tell me what your issues are during the consultation process. I'll help you come up with creative solutions and take your team through them until everyone is confident.

Don't sidestep interpreters

If an interpreter is required, don't try to have a conversation without one. At English Unlocked we love to provide our clients with tips to help them communicate clearly with non-English speaking people, but please don't use those tips to get by without an interpreter when one is needed. We provide training on working effectively with interpreters, click here to find out whether it's for you.

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