overcoming language barriers

Many Afghan refugee families have at least one family member that speaks at least some English. For our Slavic newcomer families, this is typically not the case and often no one in the family speaks English. If your refugee friends do not speak English yet, do not panic! Although starting conversations with refugees who speak little to no English can be challenging, communication can happen! Eventually communication can flow more easily as volunteers develop a good system.


practical tips

Volunteers are to understand that language barriers will occur... this is okay! Language barriers are awkward, and volunteers are to embrace this. Refugees who do not speak English understand that they cannot understand you and you cannot understand them. Be patient, use hand motions and make the most use of translating apps and dictionaries. Here are a few practical tips to get started:

  • Take full advantage of Google Translate or a phone app to help you along the way!

  • A refugee's U.S. Tie or neighbors can also prove to be invaluable! Consider networking within the family's apartment complex to see if there are neighbors who speak the family's native language and English. 

  • Speak clearly, calmly, and slowly. For many newcomers, improving their English skills is an important goal, so don't give up. 

  • Exposure to the English language and persistence on a refugee's part are key to learning. 

  • As volunteers expose themselves to the accent of the refugees whom they are befriending, they will be able to understand their English better. 

  • If you have attempted the practical tips listed above and you are still struggling to communicate an important message to the family, such as the exact time you will arrive to take them to a medical appointment, you can contact your Volunteer Coordinator to discuss other possible solutions. 


Listening to refugees

  • Oftentimes, many refugees have not had the opportunity to be listened to. Volunteers have the honor of taking time to listen and learn about a refugee's culture. 

  • Take time to ask intentional questions that show you genuinely care about building a relationship and knowing them.

  • Understand that refugees may not understand things that you would consider "common sense." Be patient and work with them! 

  • When refugees make mistakes (either in their English or in actions) be sure to find a balance between when it's healthy to correct them and when it is hurtful.