7 Simple Tips for Effectively Communicating with Non-English Speaking Patients

Language Service Provider (LSP)

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With an estimated 44 million foreign born people living in the U.S. and 22 percent of the population not speaking English at home, we are more likely than ever to encounter non-English speaking people. Effective communication is important in all aspects of life, but it’s even more crucial in the workplace. Being able to communicate in a way that makes those who are less proficient in your native language comfortable is a useful skill to cultivate.

If you work in the life sciences or medical industry, chances are good that you encounter non-English speaking or ESL patients regularly. Certainly, there are times when patient safety requires making an interpreter available to communicate effectively with non-English speakers, but the job of putting patients at ease cannot be left solely to interpreters.

You can put non-native English speakers at ease by following these seven simple tips:

1. Speak Slowly and Clearly

Whenever communicating with patients, colleagues, or other contacts in a business context, no matter what language they speak, it is good practice to speak slowly and deliberately. When speaking with non-experts who use English as a second language, you will want to speak even more slowly than you normally would, but without being condescending. Keep in mind that most language learners who are not yet proficient, may understand more than they can speak. Still, it can take them longer to comprehend your words.

2. Keep It Simple.

It’s also important to stick to simple explanations whenever possible. Using plain language goes a long way. This is especially true when explaining complex or technical systems or procedures to non-experts. The shorter the explanation, the better. When working with an interpreter, long explanations can cause the interpreter to summarize in a way that doesn’t convey all that you want the person to know.

3. Make Eye Contact

With language barriers, eye contact is an especially powerful tool you can use to make the listener feel more comfortable. Even though you may be communicating through an interpreter, look at the patient and make sure you are engaging her in the same way you would engage someone who is fluent in English. Although this may feel slightly awkward at first, it will help bridge the communication gap.

4. Stay Engaged with the Interpreter

You will also want to stay engaged with the interpreter to ensure that this professional hears and understands you well. Do not flip through charts, keep your head buried in a screen, or look out the window as you talk with the non-English speaking patient and interpreter. Signal your interest and concern by staying engaged with everyone involved.

5. Pay Attention to Body Language

Body language is another tool that helps us communicate beyond the words we use. Being aware of your own body language and what it conveys helps you communicate effectively with non-English speakers. You should also pay close attention to the body language and facial expressions used by those to whom you’re speaking. It can give you vital clues about whether the patient is understanding you.

6. Be Patient and Respectful

Above all, putting non-English speaking patients at ease requires that you demonstrate patience and respect. It can be frustrating to speak with someone who does not understand you or who cannot easily communicate with you. However, as a professional, controlling your frustration will increase your odds of achieving a successful outcome.

7. Be Culturally Sensitive

Finally, be sure you are signalling cultural sensitivity in your interactions with patients and others. You can do this in several ways:

  • Learn a few polite expressions in the languages you encounter most frequently on the job. For example, even being able to offer common greetings, as well as saying “please” and “thank you” in a pateint’s native language shows that you are ready to listen.
  • Familiarize yourself with the cultural norms around sensitive topics such as death, sexuality, and women’s health. Koreans, for instance, view being present for the death of their loved ones as particularly important.
  • Avoid using jokes, idioms, and proverbs that may not translate well. These kinds of phrases can make non-native English speakers feel left out of conversations despite any well-meaning intentions.

Communicating effectively with non-English speaking people can be challenging, but also rewarding. You likely don’t need to make big policy changes to ensure that you and your team demonstrate equal respect for people of all backgrounds. Follow the above tips and emphasize that outcomes improve in the life sciences when patients feel comfortable communicating with all staff members.