- With all ESL learners you have to be careful with colloquialisms. As native English speakers we often don’t even realize we’re using them. It’s especially helpful in fitness to watch our use of verbs. I once saw a trainer instructing an ESL learner on how to use a treadmill which he started by saying “just hop on up here and press this button”. You can imagine how confused the client was as he was trying to figure out why one would “hop” on a treadmill. He was picturing someone hopping like a bunny while the treadmill was moving. “Step up” would have been a much better phrase to use.
- Most ESL teachers “talk with our hands”. That is to say we basically play charades as we are speaking to ESL learners. Don’t be afraid to add this to your conversations in the gym. If you have a sign-in sheet for classes, tell your new ESL learner client that they need to sign in but also mime picking up a pen and signing the sheet.
- Use visual directional cues. If you want your client to use their right leg to step forward in a lunge, actually point to the right and point forward as you speak. Just be careful about rights and lefts because they’re the opposite if you’re facing a person directly! Group Fitness Leaders are very skilled at this since we do it aerobics classes all the time, so check with a GFL if you need advice on how to do mirror-image teaching.
- Drawings are always helpful too. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be Leonardo Da Vinci with the drawings. A basic stick-figure or approximate shape of muscle is perfect for getting the point across. A note pad and a pencil during a one-on-one session can be your most useful tools of all.
- Another use for note paper is to write out the words you are using. Quite often ESL learners are better at reading English than they are speaking or hearing it. Writing out the word so the client can see how it is spelled often works well. If you use sticky notes they can keep their new words after the session for review too.
- I do hope I’m being overly careful by saying this, but just in case… Don’t assume your ESL Learner client is “stupid” because they don’t speak much English yet. And also, please don’t assume he or she doesn’t already know this stuff in their native language. It is highly likely that they already know a great deal of information, they just can’t translate it yet. I once had an ESL client who is a doctor. He didn’t know more than maybe a dozen words of English when he first moved here, so you can imagine how frustrating it was for him not knowing the English words for the major muscles! Through drawings and “playing charades” we managed to get him the information he wanted and he learned some new English words along the way. So many newcomers to Canada are very highly educated, and they are often relieved and very pleased to be recognized as such.
- Your ESL Learner client really wants to learn more English! Sometimes they are really keen learners to the point where asking you to spell or explain new words can overshadow the workout itself. Don’t worry about that. It’ll make for a better workout for that client in a few days or weeks and it will keep them coming back to you as well
- Be patient if you have trouble understanding someones’s speech with a heavy accent, AND, make an effort to become familiar with how different accents sound. When you’re raised in a homogenous community you generally learn to hear only your own accent. Folks from large cities rarely have this problem. If you find you can’t understand a word your client is saying, ask for their patience until you get used to hearing how they speak. Accents from different languages are a lot like learning music. After a bit of practice you will be able to recognize different notes and rhythms in music. So too with accents. It takes practice until you become accustomed to how certain letter, syllables and works come through. And that doesn’t have to just be for people who are new to English, either. There’s dozens of various English-language accents and dialects throughout the world, and a native English speaker of one might not be able to understand another. Cockney Rhyming Slang, anyone? Check out films with actors using accents, or check out some of the fabulous international speakers on TED.com to practice getting your ear attuned to new sounds.
In all things it helps to have a healthy interest and curiosity about other people’s countries, cultures and languages. As a fitness professional I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and exercising with people from so many different places – Vietnam, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, China, Lebanon, South Korea, Romania, India - that have really broadened my ability to communicate. I happen to be the sort of person who is naturally interested in other cultures and languages. I like to hear about other peoples’ food, dances, music and so on. An ESL Learner in the gym is an opportunity to learn about the world, and to be a better trainer!