Dos & Don'ts: How to properly engage with foreign language speaking clients

Dos & Don'ts: How to properly engage with foreign language speaking clients

As a lawyer in today's modern, multicultural, and increasingly interlinked world, you will inevitably have to deal with clients who speak English as a second language. This will range from fluent speakers to people with very limited English. 

Whilst having translation and interpretation services on standby is desirable, it isn't always practical.

How can you assist clients with language needs without the need to have everything run through an interpreter? In this article, we'll look at some dos and don'ts that may help you to deliver an excellent service to clients who have English as a second language (ESL).

1) Slow down & enunciate

The first thing to remember is that it's easier to understand a second language than to speak it. When you are listening, you can infer from context and hearing the words triggers memories of their meaning. This is easier than grasping for the word when trying to speak. Slowing down gives the listener time to hear each syllable and negates the effect of accent or the linguistic shortcuts native speakers often use. 

In some languages, intonation can signify meaning to a greater extent than in English. Pronouncing words clearly, pausing, and intoning clearly can greatly assist ESL speakers. 

Be careful not to appear condescending or patronising though!

2) Be aware of cultural differences

There are likely to be cultural differences when working with ESL speakers. Different perspectives, preferences, ways of doing business and senses of meaning can all affect even the most straightforward transactions.

As an example, a long time before writing this piece, I carried out voluntary legal work in Ghana. I was carrying out an interview with a woman regarding a family matter and asked her if "she had any kids". No, came the answer. Somewhat confused, I asked who the children sitting beside her were. They were hers, she reassured me. "So two kids?". No, no kids, she stated again. I had used 'kids' in the English colloquial sense to mean "children". She, however, was using the word to mean "baby goats" - a fairly common thing to own in rural Ghana - much less so in my own urban UK experience!

3) Speak in plain English

There are few other consumer-facing industries as replete with jargon as law. Naturally, as lawyers, we favour precision in communication - which often means using the precise legal term or reference to a particular statute or concept. This, however, makes things difficult for even the most fluent English speaker, far less ESL speakers.

Try instead to limit communication to the most common English words. In point of fact, this can be a helpful exercise in making us communicate even more clearly even with native or fluent English speakers.

In summary

Most of the above is common sense and simply being clear, empathetic, and, perhaps most importantly, listening to your client will solve most challenges. However, for those linguistic challenges that require a more thorough approach, please contact IMD Translation for expert legal translation and interpreting services.