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Crossing Language Boundaries: Helpful Hints for Librarians

Working with families for whom English is not their first language can seem challenging when the librarian doesn't speak or understand the other language. It is easy for both people to become flustered and frustrated while trying to communicate. These tips are offered to help you welcome everyone to the library.

  • Genuine warmth and a welcoming smile will put everyone at ease and helps to cross language barriers.
  • Remember cultural differences and work with them. You may be perceived as a "government official" and patrons may be a bit fearful during the interaction with you. In some cultures it is not considered respectful to look you in the eyes.
  • Often the person using the library will speak and understand some English but may not be fluent. Be patient and allow time for the person to think of the appropriate words.
  • People often understand a language before they can comfortably speak it. Don't assume that the person can't understand what you are saying, even if they are not able to articulate their needs in English.
  • Avoid using jargon, slang, and idioms. These may not be understood and could confuse the patron. Opt for simpler words, and try not to use contractions.
  • Speak in a normal tone of voice. Talking louder won't make it easier for you to be understood. Speak clearly and distinctly but don't exaggerate pronunciations. Also avoid covering your mouth while speaking. Seeing how the word is formed often offers clues to the words you are speaking.
  • Whenever possible, show things. Bringing items to the person, demonstrating how to do something, and using hand signals can be more effective than trying to figure out the right words to say.
  • Write out information in clear printed letters. People are often able to interpret written words more easily than they can understand spoken language.
  • Know who on the library's staff can speak languages other than English. Call on these people to assist you when necessary. In some cases you may be able to call on staff in other departments or agencies for assistance.
  • Keep a vocabulary list on hand to help you provide specific information in another language. A number of libraries around the country have developed these "cheat sheets." It's okay to point to the word or phrase you are trying to convey.
  • Keep a bilingual dictionary close by. Indicate that you need a minute to find a word if necessary.
  • Incorporate a few words in other languages into storytimes and other programs. Learn basic words (colors, animals, numbers) that can be substituted for English words in books that are read during programs. Use pre-recorded music to share songs in other languages.
  • Provide basic library forms, including storytime registration forms, in other languages whenever possible. Many of these forms can be borrowed from other libraries that have developed them, or ask for community volunteers.
  • Include culturally relevant materials in programs whenever possible. These might include bilingual books, bilingual handouts and activity sheets, and words for nursery rhymes or songs.
  • Parents who are not comfortable communicating in English may bring a child to serve as a translator. Speak directly to the parent, even though it may seem easier to talk through the child.
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