Training employees is difficult enough when they are all native-born, English speakers. What happens when you need to provide English-only training to employees when English is their second or third language?

Many trainers that I polled regarding this topic suggested using a translator or translating the materials into the employees’ primary language. That’s all well and good when and if it is possible. However, other trainers discovered that some employees are illiterate in their native language also.

In regulated environments, such as the pharmaceutical industry, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has placed almost more of a regulatory burden on companies than either OSHA or EPA has. If the batch records are in English and your employees do not read English, how can they read and follow the batch record? How can they read and understand the material safety data sheet (MSDS)?

ESL classes

Providing ESL (English as Second Language) classes can help. However, this must be implemented in a rigorous way by insisting that all employees, including supervisors and managers, use English during work. At one facility, I asked a supervisor why he was giving instructions to his workers in their language and he said because it’s faster. What kind of message does that send to the workers? It is a message that undermines corporate requirements.

ESL classes should be provided during normal working hours. This tells the employees that the company is serious about helping them improve. Additionally, the company should encourage their employees to attend night school so they can improve their education by earning a high school diploma or higher degree.

Some employees speak and read English but with low understanding and/or comprehension. Employers should provide assistance courses in improving these skills. A good consultant could help the company with these types of programs(1).

Cultural differences

As our nation becomes more multi-cultural, company management must be understanding of cultural biases. Your employees may slowly improve their English-speaking skills, but cultural differences will be very slow to change, if at all.

For example, there are some cultures today that will not accept a woman as a boss or instructor. During a female-led training session a student might carry on a conversation with a fellow worker or just stare off into the distance.

So how do you gage the understanding of a topic by your students? Asking, “Do you understand,” won’t help because they will just nod their heads yes. Rather, ask an open-ended question.

DON’T ASK: “Do you know how to use the respirator?”

DO ASK: “Show me how to put on the respirator” or “How do you do a negative-pressure seal check?

Unique techniques

John Drebinger, a professional speaker and trainer from Galt, Calif. (, uses magic in his presentations. “Magic,” he told me, “transcends language.” When John speaks to an audience that doesn’t fully understand English, he presents the information three different ways and asks leading questions to engage them. His use of magic is a non-verbal way of getting his message to the employees.

Linda Tapp, president of Crown Safety, LLC, in Cherry Hill, N.J. (, and a member of ISHN’s Board of Editorial Advisors, told me that she uses props and pictures in her training sessions. “A picture doesn’t need any words. You can photograph a piece of equipment and by using gestures and models get your point across.”

Isbelia Lugo, safety director of Advanced Risk Management Services, Inc. ( says, “It is always tricky presenting to a mixed audience whether in English or Spanish because you want to make sure that everyone understands the material being presented… Being bilingual, is where ‘Spanglish’ has come in very handy, and it’s great for bringing some humor into what can be very serious material or information.”

Many people, both English-speaking and non-English-speaking, will not answer a question because they may feel foolish if they get it wrong. So rather than have one person stand and answer the question, use small groups. Give them a series of questions to answer. The group will develop the answers in a non-threatening environment.

Games people play

Games are usually a favorite for everyone. In introducing a new topic, where the employees may not fully understand all of the requirements or information, use a multiple-choice guessing game. At a recent Safety Day celebration, I used PowerPoint® to present a question (in English) to the employees, and three answers. The employee only had to say the number to the correct answer, and when he or she pressed “enter” the screen changed color and the correct answer lit up. The employees received prizes if they got the correct answer, even if they guessed.

Once the employees become comfortable with a subject, the games can be trickier. Crossword puzzles can work, but many non-English speaking employees may need a list of words because correct spelling may be difficult.

Another effective game is to break the group into small teams. Provide them with an MSDS and a list of five questions asking for information found in the MSDS. The team that reads the MSDS and answers the questions in the shortest amount of time wins. Penalty time is added if they get a question wrong. This helps to promote teamwork while forcing them to perform tasks in English.

Work on it

You will not fully solve the language problem, so learn to accept it and deal with it. Use humor, pictures, toys and models. Stress the correct English words to your trainees. Learn a few words in their language to show them you care about them.

Have frank discussions with management to determine if English-only really is a company requirement. If it is, work with the employees to give them the English comprehension and speaking skills they need.

If it is not a real requirement, work on developing necessary bilingual educational materials and signs.

SIDEBAR: Quiz time

“Learning assessment,” “course review” or “quiz” — whatever term you use — they all have a place in training non-English-speaking employees. Many times employees read and speak English better than they want to let others know. A quiz is one way to measure this.

A fellow trainer who also has a large ESL population gave a quiz after a recent training to all employees. Out of the 240 employees who took the quiz, less than 5 percent did not pass with 70 percent or better.