Tuesday, September 11, 2012

ESL Expectations

My library will soon be starting up its fall session of Let's Talk, a session of English conversational classes that we host each Fall and Spring, and this has got me thinking about how libraries assist the ESL community as a whole.  If your library is like mine, it may offer something similar to our Let's Talk classes or may even provide citizenship classes.  All of it is great, but it's not the programs where libraries seem to fall short.  The regular, day to day interactions we have with ESL customers has a huge impact on both their library experience and their cultural experience as a whole.  If we, as librarians, fail to meet their needs in the most simple of information exchanges, that is one customer we have lost that even the most promising of programs cannot bring back.

It's All in the Smile, Except When it Isn't
A smile says a lot and it sure helps put customers at ease, but it cannot translate what a customer is trying to tell you.  You may be familiar with the frustration of assisting an ESL customer when you are not quite sure what they need.  If you've experienced this frustration first hand, imagine instead that you are the customer and your language limitations have been reached.  You've already embarrassed yourself trying to communicate and you see that the Librarian has no idea what you need.  The easiest solution?  Just saying yes and accepting whatever the Librarian gives you knowing that, in the end, you will have to help yourself.  This customer will most likely not come back and, if they do, they will not be asking for help in the future.

Because the ESL community spans the entire scope of languages and cultures, it is important to approach each customer as an individual and meet their specific needs.  But how can you know what the need is if you cannot understand?  I suggest following these Model Reference Behaviors for ESL customers, presented in an InfoPeople workshop on Customer Service Skills for Culturally Diverse Communities.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Yes Sometimes Means No - Either out of respect to you or because they are frustrated, a customer may respond in the affirmative when it is really not what they need.  When you see the eyes light up, you know that this is a genuine YES!
  • Speak to the Individual, Not the Translator - Out of respect for the customer, you should look at them as you are speaking even if they do not understand a single word.
  • Listen, Listen, and Listen - Get to know the individual.  Understanding a little about their history will give you insight to what they want for their future.  It will also help you understand other customers who come in with a similar history or culture.
  • Match Vocabulary - By using the same words and phrases the customer uses, you increase your chance of being understood.  For example, it is always better to use the term borrow rather than check-out.
  • Translations When Possible - If there is a language spoken among many customers, it is in the Library's best interest to translate important information in that language.  New Card handouts, for example, that explain late fees will best be understood if it is written in their native language.
The concept of libraries as we view them in North America and in other western cultures is not a familiar one to most ESL customers.  Libraries are often viewed as highly academic and, oftentimes, are not free to the public.  Libraries have their work cut out for them when it comes to reaching out to the ESL community and educating them about what a great resource their local library is.  Once they come in, let's try to keep them here by continually exceeding their expectations.

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