5 Ways to Communicate Even When You Don’t Share a Language

English as a Foreign Language classes are great, but they generally assume that the students have some foundational knowledge of English. Sadly, this is not always the case. There are many immigrants (especially stay at home spouses of international students or workers) who speak little to no English, and yet they still need to navigate life here.

If you’re trying to help a new friend but you don’t share a language (i.e. they don’t speak English and you don’t speak their language), don’t despair. Here are five ideas for overcoming language barriers while engaging with international friends:

  1. Comb through your network.

Is there someone you know who speaks both English and the language of your new friend? Getting them to be your partner will make things so much smoother, and connecting the two of them may well initiate a long lasting heart-language friendship. Note: Asking for help from an international brother or sister in Christ would be an excellent way encourage a Christian immigrant to get involved in giving back to the community.

Note: This person does not have to live near you. I recently heard of a friend engaged in ministry among internationals who helped a woman from Turkey get her life set up in New England by texting with the woman’s relative back in Turkey who spoke English. My friend would text him a question in English, he’d text it back in Turkish, the woman would send him an answer in Turkish, and he’s send it back in English. The process was slow but effective!

  1. Don’t discount children’s help.

The reality for many immigrant families is that the children speak English more confidently than the parents. If the new friend you’re helping has children, engage them in conversation to gauge their language level, and include them in whatever you’re doing so that you can be a communication team.

  1. Use Google Translate (or similar apps).

Though translation apps are not perfect, they are an easy way to get started communicating with someone with whom you don’t share a language since all you need is a phone or computer! Just keep in mind that is something doesn’t make sense translated, you may have to ask a follow-up question to check.

  1. Use sign language.

It seems obvious, but don’t be shy to use hand gestures, facial expressions and pointing when it has been established that you cannot communicate via a common language. This can feel awkward at first, but it is amazing how much you can understand each other if both people let go of pretenses and get active and creative to get their point across.

  1. Focus on activities.

If you’re hoping to engage socially with this person (not just help with a one-time need), focus on a shared activity that doesn’t require much talking. Some ideas for this kind of activity: cooking together, playing soccer (though they may call it football!), watching a movie with subtitles, or grocery shopping.

How have you overcome language barriers while engaging with international friends?


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