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Briefing: overcoming language barriers in lawyer-client communication

Briefing: overcoming language barriers in lawyer-client communication

In this blog post, Judith Reynolds, Research Associate at Cardiff University’s Centre for Language and Communication Research, offers immigration law practitioners some reflections and tips for communicating with foreign language-speaking clients.

As all legal practitioners are keenly aware, communicating effectively with clients is central to good legal practice. Being aware of your client’s communication needs, and how you can respond to these, is a prerequisite for a productive lawyer-client relationship. This can be a particular challenge in immigration law practice, where lawyers may encounter different languages and different cultural perspectives on communication.

This post is grounded in communication-focused research undertaken in the immigration legal advice context, but is hopefully useful in immigration practice in general. I introduce some key characteristics of language and implications for immigration advice work, before discussing how lawyers might approach communicating with clients using a second language in practice, and finish with a section on working with interpreters.

Things you should know about language

The different dimensions of language

Many people around the world use only one language for communication, but many others draw on a mix of different languages: over half the world’s population are bi- or multilingual. Each of us also has a varying level of expertise in each language that we know, including our mother tongue. 

The answer to the question “what languages does my client speak?” is not always straightforward, therefore. People often have different skill levels for reading, writing, speaking and listening in a particular language. Also, someone might know a lot of vocabulary but have trouble with grammar — or vice versa. These different language skills and areas of knowledge develop separately, and at different rates, depending on the learning environment and other factors. 

First and second languages

Most of us have a knowledge and skill set in our first language the language that we learned in the family in early childhood — that is good enough for us to live our everyday lives using that language. Some people have more than one first language, if raised bi- or multilingually. Two key things to be aware of about first languages are:

  • Literacy (reading and writing skills) in a first language cannot be assumed. A good command of the spoken language usually develops, but whether or not someone learns to read and write in their first language may depend on their access to formal education. Additionally, quite a few languages are oral languages with no written form. 
  • Knowledge of vocabulary, in any language, varies. This is task- or topic-based, and is dependent on experience and education. Lawyers, for example, will understand the legal terms used within their field of practice, but may not be familiar with medical terminology even though this is technically part of their first language.

In addition to first languages, many people have knowledge and skills in one or more second languages — languages acquired outside the family after early childhood, e.g. through formal education or informal learning in daily life. The extent of second language knowledge and skills can vary widely, ranging from only basic knowledge of a few words to expert level knowledge and skills.

Implications for immigration legal practice

An individual’s language skills are not always predictable, nor are they fully visible to others. It is important not to make assumptions about any client’s language skills, whether based on your own use of language, or your experience of other clients from the same country.   

Getting to know your client: Try to develop a picture of your client’s language skills when you first meet them, and respond to these. Talking about your respective languages with your client is a good way to develop the lawyer-client relationship. Even small questions or efforts to engage can demonstrate your interest in, and respect for, the client as an individual.

Using translation apps: Translation apps can be very useful for translating vocabulary and everyday conversation, but it is important to use them carefully and in an informed way.  Many apps cover official or standard varieties of larger world languages, but not smaller languages or dialect forms. Further, apps based on written input and written output rely on user literacy, so are not suitable for everyone. Some apps do allow for both text and audio input and output, as this review post from 2016 highlights. As technology changes fast in this area, ask friends, colleagues and clients which apps they use.

Be aware that translation apps do not currently perform well with specialist or complex language. As this recent research in the immigration legal advice context illustrates, most apps use machine translation systems which draw on little grammatical knowledge, and are not reliable for accurately translating longer sentences or specialist concepts. You are more likely to get an accurate translation if you stick to single words, phrases, or short and grammatically simple sentences.

Working with documents: A client who can speak a language well may still struggle to read it, whether it is a first or a second language for them. Talk to your client about how you can support them to access any documents you need to work with. You may need to:

  • explain the meaning of specialist terms in a document;
  • read a document aloud;
  • ask an interpreter to orally sight-translate;
  • arrange for a written translation into a language your client can read;
  • combine these strategies; or
  • reverse these strategies for a document that your client can read but you cannot.

Alternatively, the client may have a supporter who can do some of these things outside of your contact time with them — literacy mediators are quite common in many cultures.

Considering what you need to achieve: When either you or the client are using a second language, consider the type of information and the level of detail that you need to obtain or convey each time you meet. People who can talk with ease in a second language about family and daily routines, may not be able to describe their history of political activism as easily. Can you achieve your objectives by relying on the second language (see next section), or do you need an interpreter’s support (see final section)?

Communicating with clients who are using a second language

Whenever you are communicating in your first language, with clients using that language as a second language, pay extra attention to the three areas of exercising empathy; consciously modifying your language; and being alert to signs of understanding or non-understanding.

Exercising empathy about language issues

As immigration lawyers will be well aware, building relationships and bonds of trust with clients is important. As this recent post from a courtroom advocate explains, when clients feel as if you understand their position, they are more ready to listen to your advice. 

It can be a real struggle to make yourself understood using limited second language knowledge and skills, as you will remember if you studied a second language at school. Showing your client that you understand this and empathise with their position can help them feel more comfortable to express themselves. Try, for example:

  • allowing clients to take their time, and reassuring them, if they are struggling to remember a word or phrase;
  • greeting clients in a language they know, to show them that you are not a perfect second language communicator either!

Adjusting your language

A key oral communication skill is what academics call “linguistic accommodation”: observing how the person you are talking with uses and responds to language, and adjusting your language so that it more closely matches the level of your client’s receptive skills. Try the following where your client’s language is more limited than your own:

  • Speak more slowly, and pause frequently –- this helps a listener to recognise and process both vocabulary and grammar.
  • Speak clearly, ensuring where possible that your listener can see your face when you talk — lip reading can play a major part in listening comprehension.
  • Emphasise, and repeat, key words — this helps a listener to grasp key points. Don’t speak more loudly, however, as this is unnecessary and can appear patronising.
  • Paraphrase key points — saying the same thing again in a different way can help the listener to check and confirm their understanding. For example, after saying “we need to complete this application”, you could add “we have to fill out this form”.
  • Use less complex vocabulary — for example, saying “pay for” instead of “fund”; or “the jobs you have had” instead of “your employment history”.
  • Use simple grammatical structures, such as “I think that…” rather than “I would have thought that…”
  • Use shorter sentences — an easy way to simplify your grammar.  For example, “You have two options. The first option is [X]. The second option is [Y].” is easier to follow than “The two options that you have are firstly, [X], and secondly, [Y].”
  • Avoid slang and/or idioms when you talk, for example “we can finish this next week” instead of “we can wrap this up next week”.
  • Avoid the use of technical terms — if you have to use a legal or specialist term that you think the client may not know, explain its meaning when you use it (see the text box).

“Legalese”

explain this as…

Entry Clearance Officer

the person who reads your visa application

Home Office Presenting Officer

the person in court from the Home Office

evidence of…

documents/letters/photos to show that…

determination

decision made by a court or judge

false instrument

fake passport/identity document

injunction

court order/decision to say that someone must (not) do something

curtail

shorten, reduce

These approaches (many of which can also be applied to written communication) might seem straightforward when read here as a list. It is challenging to maintain clarity of communication all the time, however, especially when your focus is on the legal issues at hand. Try to pay extra attention to how you express yourself at tricky points in conversation, such as:

  • when delivering complex advice;
  • when speaking for a long time without interruption;
  • whenever clients raise unexpected questions, or seek to change the subject; and
  • when handling any interjections or questions from others present, such as supporters of the client.

You can also ask your client whether they would like you to write down key points or key words as you talk. Having a visual reminder to refer to is helpful for some people, and language learners may understand a word put down in writing that they struggle to recognise when listening, or be able to look the term up using a translation app as discussed above.

Signalling, and checking for, understanding

We all give out, and look for, signals of understanding when we interact with others. Behaviours such as facing towards the speaker, nodding, attentive body language, and small acknowledgements such as “yes”, “uh-huh”, or “mmm” in response to another’s talk are normal when listening actively to someone else, and demonstrate attention. Do keep on doing this when talking with clients.

Ways in which you can check your understanding of what your client tells you are:

  • Repeat key phrases back to the client occasionally during their talk, to confirm you have heard and understood.
  • At key points in the client’s narrative or in your questioning of them, summarise and paraphrase what they have said to you and ask them to confirm your summary.
  • Ask the client to clarify any unclear points, including any terms used that you are unfamiliar with. It may be best to write these down and deal with them once the client has finished talking.
  • When questioning, ask explicit follow-up questions. Yes/no questions, or giving alternative answers for the client to choose from, may make it easier for the client to respond.

Your client may use some of these same behaviours when listening to you. On the other hand, they may show attentiveness differently, for example by silence or by avoiding eye contact, if different communicative norms operate in their own language. If in doubt about whether your client has understood you, ask them directly. This may not always elicit an honest response, but it gives your client an opportunity to ask questions and can help to flush out any problems. 

It will normally become clear during your talk whether or not you and your client understand each other. If problems emerge, then you will need to call on the services of an interpreter.

Working with clients through interpreters

If you and your client cannot communicate at all, you will obviously need to call on the services of an interpreter. As mentioned above, if you or your client use a second language in which skills or knowledge are limited, you will also want to ask an interpreter to support communication about particularly complex or important matters.

Finding an interpreter

In the UK, anyone may currently work as an interpreter in the legal advice context without training or accreditation. It is therefore crucial to assure yourself of the competence of any interpreter you intend to use. If your organisation uses an interpreting agency, check what standards the agency requires of their interpreters. Remember that an interpreter’s professional experience, as well as qualifications, will contribute to their competence.

Professional training and accreditation, through a UKQCF Level 6 standard Diploma examined nationally by the Chartered Institute of Linguists, is only required of interpreters working in the courts, the Home Office, in police or local government contexts, and in public healthcare. Interpreters with this level of qualification can be found through a voluntary register maintained by the National Register of Public Service Interpreting

Other, lower level training and accreditation programmes in community interpreting are offered by local training agencies nationally. These provide a grounding in professional standards and key skills for interpreting in community contexts. They include a Level 3 Certificate in Community Interpreting, and a Level 4 Certificate which provides more specifically tailored training for legal contexts.

Ensure that you also take your client’s needs, e.g. for an interpreter of a particular gender or ethnic background, or in a particular dialect, into account when finding an interpreter.  Even where a client has not expressed any particular requirements, watch your client’s body language carefully as they interact with the interpreter. Intervene if you feel that your client is not fully comfortable with the interpreter or that they do not understand each other. 

Communicating through interpreters

When working with interpreters, the following tips can be useful:

  • Allow time at the start of each session for an interpreter to make a short introductory statement to explain their linguistic mediation role to both parties, and perform a comprehension check. These are important opening moves which raise awareness of, and help to maintain, appropriate roles for each party throughout the advice meeting.
  • Use short sentences, but speak in full sentences. Pause regularly to allow the interpreter to speak. Ask that the client does the same. This is important for accuracy.
  • Look at your client, and speak directly to them in the first person: “please tell me about how you came to the UK”, rather than addressing the interpreter: “please ask her to tell me how she came to the UK”. It is important that you connect with your client directly, despite your words being voiced by someone else.
  • Use less complex grammar where possible when interacting through an interpreter. This makes the task of interpreting much easier to perform accurately. For example, instead of “I would have thought that the chance of your appeal being allowed would be around 20%”, say “I think that your chance of winning this appeal is around 20%”.
  • Be aware of tricky points in the conversation — sudden topic changes (questions), addressing misunderstandings, and lengthy explanations, can make it easy to forget that interpreting needs short sentences.
  • Do not be overly alarmed by the length of conversation in the other language. You or the client may have used a term or an expression which needs some explanation in the other language, or which interpreter and client need to clarify the meaning of between themselves (remember, nobody has a perfect knowledge of vocabulary).
  • Do not be afraid, however, to ask interpreters to explain what it is they just said to the client, or what a longer exchange between client and interpreter was about. You are entitled to know the content of the whole conversation.
  • Provide for regular breaks in longer sessions: check every half an hour or so whether your interpreter needs a short break. Interpreting is a demanding and tiring job, and as interpreters get tired, the quality of interpretation suffers.
  • Consider whether you can provide the interpreter with any useful information in advance about the topic of the meeting, without breaching client confidentiality. For example, blank copies of forms or documents, or briefing sheets about the legal process being discussed, can help an interpreter to prepare for the assignment and deliver a better service.
  • After an interpreted meeting, debrief alone with the interpreter and ask them if there were any issues you should be aware of. They could pass on valuable linguistic or cultural insights.

Interpreters perform an invaluable job as expert colleagues in mediating across languages and cultures. They should not, however, perform any other role in legal advice, such as additional advisor or additional client. Following the suggestions above can help to ensure that each party’s professional roles are clear to everyone, and lead to a productive working relationship between lawyer, client and interpreter.

Conclusion

Pressures of time, funding, and case deadlines in immigration legal practice mean that it is not always easy to handle communication difficulties perfectly. However, it is a professional responsibility to make sure that your client understands your advice about their legal issue and has authorised any action you take on their behalf. Increasing your attention to your own language skills and those of others, and following some of the strategies outlined above, can ensure that you continue to place good communication at the heart of your legal practice.

I warmly welcome any questions or comments on this post — please email me at reynoldsj15@cardiff.ac.uk

Dr Judith Reynolds

Dr Judith Reynolds is a Research Associate in the Centre for Language and Communication Research at Cardiff University. Her research investigates multilingual and intercultural communication in legal advice work, focusing on legal advice about asylum and refugee family reunion in the UK, informed by her professional background as a non-practising solicitor.

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