Overcoming language barriers

Singapore has around 200,000 helpers and finding the right fit can sometimes be difficult…but not impossible! It is important to build a healthy relationship with your helper right from the start to ensure things go as smoothly as you had pictured. However, this can sometimes be tough as communication – which can make or break a relationship – can be hindered by several factors including language. Language can be a huge barrier often leading to miscommunications and as a result to frustrations (especially over safety concerns).

Sign language can be fun – at least for a while – and helpful in communicating, but eventually you might want to be able to give detailed instructions – and possibly have longer conversations. If you have found the right fit, it is worth investing some time and effort in helping your helper improve her language skills.

Here is a list of some useful tips that might support your helper in doing just that:

1) One fantastic way of learning a new language is repeating everything you hear. It might sound silly but it does work! You could ask your helper to repeat your instructions, help her pronounce tough words and look up unknown words.

2) Language classes can help her a lot to acquire new vocabulary and boost her confidence in speaking a foreign language. There are many language classes for adults all over Singapore. English for Asia offers free English classes for helpers. Other organisations offer English and/or Mandarin classes for helpers – such as ACMI (English classes), the Bayanihan Centre (English classes), Friends of Thai Workers (Mandarin classes), HOME (English classes) and the Indonesian Embassy (English and Mandarin classes).

3) Encourage her to watch some TV series in their original versions (we recommend adding subtitles during the initial stages of the learning process so she doesn’t feel too overwhelmed) right after work and on her rest days. It is a great method to master a new language. It might even be time again for you to binge-watch your all-time favorites with her!

4) You could suggest that she reads as much as possible (have a look at our article about World Book Day for great ideas of titles). We recommend that she first starts with easy-to-read texts (maybe in one of your children’s books) and then move on to more difficult texts as her level improves. You might even want to print out some recipes so she can go through them and learn new words while cooking.

5) Encourage her to download one of the many apps available out there to facilitate language learning. Some offer comprehensive courses while others focus on a specific aspect of language learning. This is quite an effective way to learn vocabulary.

6) Some individuals find it easier to understand written instructions. You might want to consider writing everything down (it can also be a great way for both of you to make sure nothing is forgotten – and avoid potential disputes) at the initial stage of your relationship. Over time – as she gets more comfortable – you’ll have the opportunity to give her more oral instructions.

7) If your helper is caring for your children while you are at work, encourage her to sing nursery rhymes with them. She’ll learn a lot and on top of that will have a lot of fun!

8) Finally, keep in mind that visuals do help a lot. Whenever it is possible, try demonstrating instructions while describing them. Many online videos do include visuals. Another interesting and user-friendly online platform is storylineonline.net (your kids will love it too!) which features readings, vocabulary and illustrations to learn English in a fun way.

To maximize her chances of success we recommend combining several of the above-mentioned learning techniques. There might be many reasons behind her poor language skills – she may have never learnt English or Mandarin before, she may not be used to your accent (we’ve all come across that accent that we struggled with!) or maybe you are speaking too fast for her. Give her time. It will definitely be needed to adjust – for both of you. She will appreciate that you are taking the extra time (and effort) to help her improve her language skills and will surely reflect that in her work. Who knows, you might even end up having a lot of fun too!