7 Quick Tips for Successfully Working Around a Language Barrier

Working in a setting with a diverse population has it’s challenges, especially when there is a language barrier!  I work in a children’s hospital where some of my clients are non-English speakers, but that doesn’t stop me from providing services!  Often people will even recommend music therapy over other modalities because music is universal and doesn’t necessarily require a whole lot of words!

Where words fail, music speaks.

                                -Hans Christian Andersen

Here are some 7 quick tips for working around a language barrier!

1. Keep it simple  – Keep your intervention simple so they don’t require a lot of explanation.  Let the music do the work instead of the words.

2. Learn the basics – Working in an area where Spanish is prevalent?  Learn to say hello, how are you, music, goodbye, and some of the other basics you know you will need! (stay tuned we will cover this more in an upcoming post!)

3. Let them know – Don’t pretend to know what your client is saying when clearly you have no clue.  Let them know that there is a language barrier, but you’ll try to understand as best you can!  There is no shame in admitting you don’t speak the same language!

4. Ask questions – If there’s another person in the room they may be able to translate a little or the client may speak a little English, so don’t hesitate to ask questions!  We all know that age old saying about making assumptions.

5. Rhythm – You DO NOT need words to play something rhythmic.  Rhythm is an intrinsic part of each and every one of us.  Most everyone can understand the basics of playing together and making music without using any words.  Try it.  See what happens.  If it fails, regroup and try again.

6. Visuals – Pictures, pointing, eye contact, facial expressions, and art are all great methods of communication that require very few words.  I already add visual aids to several of my songs or use instrument to demonstrate concepts like color or counting.

7. Have Fun and Encourage Each Other – This is the biggest one of all.  If you can have fun and remain positive there is a big chance the language barrier isn’t going to matter an ounce.  As long as you put your best foot forward, it’s going to be ok! 


Stay tuned for more helpful hints and free resources on this same topic throughout the week!

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