Imagine your boss has just told you that there’s something you could easily do at work that would increase your salary by 10%.  Would you want more information?

Now imagine you would only be able to receive that information in a language you’ve been studying for ten weeks on Duolingo.

This is precisely the scenario that plays out in human resource departments everywhere when employees are asked to come in to discuss a benefit package.

The fact is that most of us are just not prepared to deal with dense financial or contractual information in our non-native language, and here’s some of the science behind it:

Reading is not an act by which you simply dump information from the page onto your head the way you dump a jar of tomato sauce into a sauce pan on pasta night.  Schema theory, a well-attested explanation of how we read, says that what we’re really doing is relating what we see on the page to what we already know about the world in a complicated dance that manipulates, constructs and reconstructs the ideas in your head.  This is a good explanation for why, as you’re looking at this right now, you’re either agreeing or disagreeing with us, or giving your mind more time to process and come to a conclusion.  If you’re still deciding, try this more succinct explanation, from “Schema Theory in Reading”, from the journal Theory and Practice in Language Studies: “Comprehending a text is an interactive process between the reader’s background knowledge and the text.  Efficient comprehension requires the ability to relate the textual material to one’s own knowledge.”  This explains why instead of sitting down with the IRS Instructions to Form 1040 to do your own taxes, most of us call an accountant instead.  Now again, imagine you’ve got the tax form in French.

Of course, just mentioning a French tax form brings another important fact to bear on our discussion.  Many of our immigrant and refugee population come from countries with vastly different social structures, employee regulations and systems for delivering benefits.  Some may not understand that the government is not solely responsible for medicine and retirement; many will not understand the terms and the procedures used to provide for these services.

When we turn our attention to auditory processing of language, it’s important to remember that the cognitive load required to listen and interact in one’s non-native language places a strain on total brain resources.  So when the brain is using more chunks of working memory to simply understand and produce language responses, processing and storing the actual content of what is being said is limited.  Our experience teaching languages gives us plenty of anecdotal evidence of this.  Many times we’ve watched learners excited to realize they understood what someone else in the class just said, but then immediately disappointed by not being able to respond because they couldn’t remember what was actually said, and therefore they can’t generate a response.  This is an all-too-normal part of learning, explained well in this article by a teacher of English as a second language.

So, if you’re an employer, and you have important benefits information to relate to your employees, ask yourself if you’d want to receive that same information if it were brand new information that represented a huge departure from the systems with which you were familiar, delivered in a way totally unfamiliar to you while you were also asked to jump up and down counting by threes.

If you’d like to be an employer who gives your employees every advantage and if you’d like to stand out in the way you show your dedication and commitment to your limited English proficient employees, know we’re here to help.  With interpreters and translators available for over 50 languages, we’re here to help your employees thrive, because we know that when your immigrant and refugee employees thrive, they recommend you to friends and family and generate a loyal and devoted staff that helps your business reach new heights.

Reach out to us for more information and solutions today.

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