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Communication When English Is Not A Native Tongue

August 22, 2012
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According to the 2012 U.S. Census, the number of foreign-born people living in the United States is nearly 40 million, roughly 13 percent of the total population.

The largest group, from Latin America, accounts for approximately 53 percent of this group.

The second-largest group, from Asia, accounts for about 28 percent of the foreign-born people living in this country.

While many of these people are here to study or are not seeking work, the overwhelming majority do need employment to meet living expenses.

Some speak English as a second language, commonly referred to as ESL.

However, a great many of them do not speak any English.

Either way, with little or no understanding of the English language, attaining work can be a problem, which is one reason the cleaning industry can be so attractive.

Cleaning is one of the few professions available that requires not only little English comprehension when compared to most other professions, but few, if any, language skills at all.

That is true except in one key area: Training.

And, problems associated with teaching professional cleaning techniques to foreign-born people can be compounded because, in many parts of the world, the cleaning of office buildings, schools, etc., is a small industry involving relatively few people.

This often means the skills necessary to properly perform cleaning tasks are simply not taught in their home countries.

This was a key issue that "emerging nations" such as China and others in parts of Asia had to contend with when major offices, hotels and the like were first being built a decade or more ago.

Not only did developers need to turn to Western companies and consultants to help build these large structures, but they also had to consult the same folks to learn how to properly clean and maintain them.

Should You Hire Interpreters?

There are ways to successfully teach cleaning tasks to people with little or no understanding of English.

One way is to simply hire interpreters, as do many cleaning contractors and a select few in-house operations.

As a contractor or custodial supervisor demonstrates and describes how to refinish a floor, for example, the interpreter conveys the information to the students.

However, hiring interpreters can be costly and typically requires bringing large groups of people together to learn cleaning techniques at the same time.

This is not always possible and, when it is, can prove to be a large investment in both time and money.

Another major problem often develops once the students are back on the job attempting to perform what they have been taught.

Unless trainers devote a considerable amount of time to allow students to practice what they have learned in a classroom setting, they may forget key information when on the job.

Studies indicate that less than 10 percent of what we learn is retained unless the training involves hands-on practice.

Tricks Of The Trade

There are no set rules that work for everyone when it comes to teaching people how to properly clean, according to Mike Englund, a trainer and product manager for Powr-Flite.

What works well with one group may not necessarily work well with another.

However, over time and with experience, most trainers learn some ways to make the process more effective for their students.

Englund shares the following tricks of the trade for teaching people with limited or no English skills:

• Make learning interactive

Allow the students to not only practice what they have been taught but work communally with others in the class.

This can be very powerful and improve learning and retention significantly.

• Be mistake friendly

In situations where language skills are an issue, people are often shy and easily frightened, which inhibits learning.

Create an environment that allows all students to be comfortable making mistakes; mistakes are part of the learning process.

• Form small groups

If working with large groups, teach cleaning concepts first and then break the group into smaller numbers to teach the cleaning practice.

And, offer one-on-one training with each person as much as possible.

• Implement color coding

Color coding can prove beneficial, especially when it comes to identifying ideal tools for specific tasks and selecting proper chemicals.

• Provide nonverbal context

Teach using pictures, training videos, graphics and other nonverbal learning tools and visuals.

Pictures and things like color-coded charts are more universal than any specific language.

• Teach small chunks of information

Students learn at their own pace.

But, when language is a barrier, teaching cleaning tasks in small segments typically results in greater learning retention.

• Look for a bilingual helper

In most classroom settings, certain people will know some English.

Find these people and ask them to interpret items that might be confusing or difficult to understand.

• Provide bilingual written materials

Studies indicate that people learn better when they have written materials to refer to during training.

Providing educational materials in multiple languages further increases the chances of retention.

Language And Settings

According to Englund, most cleaning tasks can be taught to people with limited English skills fairly successfully; however, in certain settings, having an understanding of the English language may be necessary.

"This is especially true in medical settings and schools," says Englund. "There can be health and safety concerns, and custodial workers may be called upon to help in an emergency or need to know what to do should an emergency arise. This typically requires some basic English understanding and communication skills."

He also suggests that communication is a two-way street and that cleaning contractors and supervisors would be wise to learn a little of the language spoken by their foreign-born workers.

"Again, this is especially helpful in medical and educational facilities, but it really can pay off in the long run for everyone involved — the cleaning worker, the cleaning contractor and the customer," concludes Englund.

Richard Sanchez is a building service contractor (BSC) working in Northern California. Sanchez, who has had success training employees who speak English as a second language, often utilizes the technique of incorporating an interpreter into his demonstrations. He may be reached at

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