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October 28, 2023

Supporting Individuals With a Language Barrier

5 strategies to support communication with individuals where there is a language barrier.

Whether you work with children or adults, in education or in another health or social care setting, total communication is a key component of any effective positive behaviour approach.

So what does that look like in practice? It means using a blend of language-based communication, non-verbal cues and symbol systems to enable individuals to express themselves: signs, pictures, photographs, posters, Makaton, lip reading, eye pointing, objects of reference, and clear, concise language, to name but a few.

When total communication is the bedrock of your organisation, you can more readily provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for all. By using an appropriate range of strategies and methods, you can facilitate connection and ensure that all members of your community have a voice.

However, for individuals with English as a second or additional language, communication can sometimes be compromised (especially in relation to verbal, language-based exchanges), so it is essential that we explore ways to support these individuals, both on an everyday basis and, crucially, when they are in distress.

Barriers to communication

While many total communication strategies are helpful and appropriate for both English and non-English speakers, spoken language can often be problematic for speakers of other languages. If an individual is not fluent in English, they may struggle to articulate their thoughts, needs and feelings clearly (known as expressive communication). This can leave them feeling anxious and frustrated, and may result in behaviour if their needs are not met. They may also struggle to interpret what is being said to them (receptive communication), leading to deep-rooted feelings of disconnection and isolation.

This language barrier is compounded when an individual is in distress. When we are in a heightened state, our ability to interpret language and express ourselves verbally diminishes as the brain’s prefrontal cortex shuts down. Individuals with English as an additional language may then find themselves in a challenging situation where they do not understand verbal interactions, and revert to their native language or behaviour of concern to try and express their needs. These blocked channels of communication can lead to escalation and the likelihood of an incident.

Whilst de-escalation is achievable in the short term, the long-term consequences of impaired communication, both expressive and receptive, can be severe and include social isolation, self-exclusion and feelings of disenfranchisement.

Facilitating effective communication

Many of the strategies listed below apply to all service users, whether English is their first language or not; however, you may need to tailor some of the methods when supporting those with English as an additional language.

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