How to take different language users into account in your discussions

What is the purpose of this guide?

Linguistic understanding plays a key role in dialogue. Occasionally, a discussion can involve people who have challenges in understanding the language they hear and/or in producing speech – for example, if a discussion is held in a language that they do not speak as a first language. Their equal participation can be supported with the methods outlined below.

This tool was created by experts in dialogue and language awareness, in collaboration with the Timeout Foundation.

Before the discussion

A well-prepared selection of advance information will provide your participants with a sense of security. Providing an outline and framework for the discussion in advance will help your dialogue succeed. For example, you can use your invitation to explain what your discussion will entail. You should also provide some details about the Timeout method itself. Other examples:

  • Could you reveal some of the main questions of the discussion in advance, to encourage your participants to reflect on their thoughts and experiences before the discussion itself?
  • Could you send a written/audio/video introduction to your discussion in advance?
  • Describe in your invitation what the facilitator’s task will be and what you hope to receive from your participants. You can inform your participants that they will have the opportunity to reflect on and record their experiences and thoughts during the discussion itself.
  • Explain whether your participants can request an interpreter, and how they should proceed if they wish to do so.
  • If you know in advance that someone in your discussion will have challenges with the language used, ask them directly about how you could make the discussion more accessible to them.

During the discussion

Set the linguistic parameters of the discussion as soon as it begins. If there are people present with different linguistic backgrounds and the dialogue will be held in Finnish/Swedish, make it clear to everyone. This will also encourage first-language speakers to reflect on their word choices and cultural references. Ask your participants to speak audibly and using clear, everyday language. Repeat your questions and instructions and, if necessary, any questions from your participants. Use short sentences.

For example, you could say:

  • “We can speak in many languages today, let’s help each other.”
  • “Anyone can act as an interpreter today.”
  • “Let’s use everyday language today and speak audibly.”
  • “Was I clear enough?”

Help slow down the discussion. The facilitator of the discussion plays an important role in setting the rhythm of the discussion to a more considered pace. Consider giving more time to pair discussions or whether the dialogue could also include time for reflecting on and recording one’s thoughts. You can also briefly restate what the previous participant said.

For example, you could say:

  • “Before I let the next person speak, let’s consider X’s question for a moment.”
  • “Could we agree that a person may ask to speak only after the previous speaker has finished?”
  • “Would you like to talk more about what X just said?”
  • “Please think about this issue for a moment. Write down some of your own experiences and/or thoughts. Then we can continue our conversation.”
  • “Do you still have something to add to a theme that has been discussed today?”

Summarise your discussion regularly and take enough breaks. Try to combine different people’s comments. Summarise the discussion regularly. Repeat your additional questions and instructions. Use short sentences. Give your participants a few minutes to record their experiences and thoughts on paper, then use them to continue your discussion.

For example, you could say:

  • “We’ve heard about the following experiences and thoughts … Let’s take a moment to reflect on our own experiences. Then we can resume our conversation.”
  • “I’d like to hear your thoughts, X, Y, and Z. Is there anything you’d like to add? (pause) Would you like to start, X? What experiences have come to mind during this discussion? …Thank you. What about you, Y and Z?”
  • “Was I clear enough?”

Pay particular attention to equal participation. Encourage everyone to participate. You can support your participants by looking at them and providing encouragement – but remember to avoid correcting e.g. incorrect word choices or acting as teacher. In other words, try to act as an equal partner.

For example, you could say:

  • “We’ve already heard what many of you have to say. After the next people have finished their requested turns, I’d like to hear from those who haven’t yet shared their experiences.”
  • “I’d like to hear from you, X, Y and Z. Is there anything else you’d like to add? (pause) Would you like to start, X? What experiences have come to mind during this discussion? …Thank you. What about you, Y and Z?”

Other tips

When in need, ask for assistance: For example, you can ask someone to write any important terms or themes highlighted by your participants on a whiteboard. This will allow your participants to follow and think about your conversation in other ways than just listening to the discussion unfold.

Friendly involvement: Sometimes it can be helpful to allow your participants to invite a friend or acquaintance to your discussion. Any potential support persons, assistants, instructors, or other important adults should also be allowed to attend your dialogue session. You can also ask them whether they would like to participate in the conversation itself. In such situations, it pays to be flexible and follow the flow of the conversation and the wishes of your participants.

Remember to take a breather: During your dialogue, take breaks to allow everyone to catch their breath, visit the restroom, drink a cup of coffee, and collect their thoughts. You can also use this time to ask your participants how they are doing and whether they feel that something ought to be changed. Before the break, you can inform your participants that they are free to come and ask questions or discuss an issue in private before you resume your discussion.

Request feedback: The feedback you receive from your participants will help you develop as an organiser and facilitator. Their feedback will also help you understand how they felt about the dialogue and the situation as a whole. Remember to thank those who gave their feedback and tell them how you intend to implement their suggestions and ideas.

Further reading

You can use the following Timeout tools as support when arranging a dialogue with different language speakers:

Stages and objectives of the discussion – start here

Defining the participants

Inviting participants

Venue and practical matters

Encouraging the participants to tell about their own experiences

Activating the quiet participants in the discussion

What should you do if someone dominates the discussion?

Preparing for a dialogue and compiling your own toolbox

Feedback from participants

Author: The Timeout Foundation

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