Communicating Across Languages

Docent Kathy Gunn sizes up her group as she begins a tour of the Workman House.
Docent Kathy Gunn sizes up her group as she begins a tour of the Workman House.

Every institution wants to communicate their stories and information as clearly and effectively as possible, but what should you do when the language you are using to deliver that content is a barrier to your visitors’ understanding? At the Homestead Museum, we often have visitors whose primary language is not English, so we recently put together a list of things for our docents to keep in mind when giving tours to this audience.

  • Simplify the input. Speak slowly, enunciate clearly, and limit the use of more complex words and slang. Avoid metaphors or idioms, as these can appear nonsensical and distract from your point.
  • Pronounce your words correctly. Exaggerated pronunciations will not help your listener and may cause more confusion.
  • Be explicit. Say, “Yes” or “No.” Do not say, “Uh-huh” or “Uh-uh.”
  • Decrease the use of “filler” words. Try to remove the “noise” from your speech. If your tour is filled with “um,” “like,” “you know,” or other fillers, comprehension becomes, uh, difficult.
  • Economize your words. Listening to an unfamiliar language for long periods of time can be tiring. Choose your words thoughtfully and carefully.
  • Be aware of cultural differences. There are different standards around the world regarding touching, eye contact, and personal space. Someone standing closely or not looking you in the eye can merely be the cultural norm for him/her, and should not be taken as an offense.

If an interpreter is with the group:

  • Interact with the entire group. Always engage the entire audience by showing interest and focusing on the whole group. If you only look at the interpreter, you lose any chance of building rapport with the rest of the visitors.
  • Plan your time carefully. Remember that everything is being said twice—first by you, and then by the interpreter. So, a one-hour tour can quickly become two. Compensate by cutting down the amount of information you give on the tour.
  • Do not rush. Interpreting is a taxing job and is mentally exhausting. To alleviate the pressure as much as possible, speak slowly and clearly.
  • Complete your thoughts. Each statement you make should be expressed as a complete thought. Don’t segment to “give the interpreter time” to translat—this breaks up the content oddly and things can, indeed, get lost in translation.