3 Strategies For Working with Non-Native English Speakers

Tips for Tackling Language Barriers- Food & Nutrition Magazine - Stone Soup
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Education is a powerful tool. However, language can be one of many barriers to information. In an ideal world, everyone could deliver nutrition education in a person’s native language but that is not always the case.

So as a student volunteer, intern or registered dietitian nutritionist, what can you do to overcome language barriers?

Here are some methods I have found effective:3 Strategies For Working with Non-Native English Speakers -

Strategy 1: Set a Clear Objective

A clear objective makes it easy for you to assess whether someone is leaving with the knowledge you intended.

For example, if you are delivering a session on portion sizes ask yourself, “What exactly should someone learn?”

Example Objectives:

  1. Participants will know about portion sizes.
  2. Participants will understand how to assess an appropriate portion size for a snack and one main meal.

Objective 2 is a better objective because it details what knowledge someone will gain and in what context. By the end of your lesson or consultation, you will know if your learners can assess an appropriate portion size for both a snack and a main meal or not.

Strategy 2: Grade your Language

When working with people who don’t speak English at a near-native level, it is important to grade your own language. That means using vocabulary and grammar that is appropriate for their proficiency level.

For example, if you are giving directions you could do so in two different ways:

  1. “I would like the two of you in the corner to work together on this exercise we are doing here and you’ll have 5 minutes for it.”
  2. “You two (point to the learners), please work together on this activity. You have 5 minutes.”

Option 2 is a good example of grading your language to an intermediate or lower English level. The statement focuses on what your learners need to know: who they are working with, what they are doing and how long they have to complete the task.

Grading language can be tricky without knowing someone’s language level and it is a skill that requires practice. With time, it does get easier!

Strategy 3: Practice

A good way to help a learner is to have them apply their knowledge. Having a practice activity can be especially helpful when working with non-native English speakers because you both can see how able they are to apply key concepts before leaving a session or consultation.


Working with non-native English speakers requires you to think about the language you use just as much as the content. Setting a clear objective is the first step toward a successful session and if you spend time thinking about the language of your delivery, you will be able to effectively convey your message. To tie everything together, plan an activity that lets your learners practice applying what they have learned within a real context. With some planning and forethought, language does not need to be a barrier when teaching people about nutrition.

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Ame Proietti
Ame Proietti is pursuing a degree in dietetics at the University of Arizona. Having worked in the English as a second language industry previously, her interests are in nutrition education and health-related education in a second or foreign language setting.