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How to Support English Language Learners In The Workplace

This article was based on episode 161 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Five members of the Modern Manager Community get a free 30-minute session with Katie Nielson on how to make your organization, products, or workplace more welcoming to English language learners. Become a member at themodernmanager.com/join.


I recently met my grandmother’s overnight health aid. She is a lovely woman from Colombia who I was surprised to discover was a licensed social worker. Unfortunately, her English language skills have kept her from being able to pursue a similar line of work here in the US. This woman’s story is not unique. If you’re like most managers in America, you are probably overlooking an important segment of the potential workforce, and maybe even members of your own staff; individuals from foreign countries who don’t speak great English. We complain about “talent pipeline shortages” yet completely disregard our ability to unlock the talent of these people through English language education and upskilling. If we truly want to work on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we need to think about immigrants and refugees, and how we can support them to contribute to their fullest potential.


I spoke with Katie Nielson, the founder and Chief Education Officer of Voxy EnGen. Voxy EnGen gives language learners the tools they need to advocate for themselves and their families and improve their economic outcomes. Katie’s company uses incredible, innovative technology to deliver language learning in the workplace. She talks with me about why America fails in general at language learning, why American managers are so resistant to training and promoting those with weak English language skills, and what we can do to create a more supported, skilled staff.


AMERICA IS TERRIBLE AT LANGUAGE LEARNING


In The United States, we meet the needs of a mere 4% of adult language learners. That means millions of people could be learning and contributing to society at a much higher level. Many American managers assume that improving language skills for their workers is just too hard. They think “I took Spanish in school for five years and don’t remember a thing. How can anyone learn English in a few months?”


As Katie put it, America has a language problem. It’s often taught wrong. Learning a language should be like learning to ride a bike. You can’t talk about riding the bike or draw diagrams of the bike. You have to experience it. It needs to be relevant to your life. In the program Katie developed, she has learners listen to real people talking with managers, doing customer service, and or practice reading employee manuals, supplying them with the specific English they need in the workplace. Through this process, learners are able to quickly develop the skills they need to contribute more and advance their careers.


HOW TO HELP IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES INTEGRATE BETTER INTO THE WORKPLACE


Check Your Hiring Biases

The hiring process can be full of bias that limits us from forming a diverse staff that includes refugees and immigrants. Often an interviewer will think twice when someone has an accent that makes it harder to understand them. Degrees from foreign countries might not feel as “familiar” or “acceptable”. In some cases, managers set requirements for specific credentials or formal education degrees that aren’t actually necessary, and may be prohibitive in building the type of diverse workforce you want. Consider what you actually need for the position, and what biases may be limiting you from expanding the talent pool.


Distinguish Among the Four Language Skills

We tend to condense language into a single skill when it’s actually four separate skills: the receptive skills of listening and reading, and the productive skills of speaking and writing. Different roles require different levels of mastery of each of these skills. Consider which skills are needed for the job during the hiring process. For example, someone working in a customer service call center needs strong speaking and listening skills while someone responding to customer service emails needs strong reading, and possibly writing, skills. Before suggesting a colleague improve their language skills, ask them what they see as their strengths and opportunities for growth. Then, be specific about which English skills you believe are worth investing in and why it will help them both on and off the job.


Communication Is Also The Manager’s Responsibility

As Katie put it, communication is a two way street. Consider what your own responsibility is in improving communication; maybe it would be helpful for you to slow down when speaking with a coworker to help them better understand you. You can also ask them to repeat themselves, explaining how much you value their ideas and want to be sure you understood them accurately. Even correcting their mistakes in a kind way contributes to their improvement. Of course, in some circumstances like company-wide meetings or important announcements, you may want to go as far as offering translation or interpretation services, as well as making sure resources are available in their first language.


As we aim to be more conscious of DEI in the workplace, we need to remove barriers and provide support that enables our own staff to rise higher. Immigrants and refugees are an important part of the fabric of our society. We can help them gain the language skills they need to move up their careers and fully contribute to our organizations, ultimately improving their own lives and our entire country.


KEEP UP WITH KATIE


Five members of the Modern Manager Community get a free 30-minute session with Katie Nielson on how to make your organization, products, or workplace more welcoming to English language learners. Become a member at themodernmanager.com/join. Or, purchase an individual episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.


This article was based on episode 161 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

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