Language Barrier: How to Communicate with an ESL Roommate

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Language Barrier: How to Communicate with an ESL Roommate

Staff Writer · Aug 19, 2010

Living with an ESL (English as a Second Language) speaker poses a few challenges. While living with someone from another country can be a rewarding experience, you want to make sure that you share proper roommate communication so that you both understand what’s expected of the other.

Clearly Define Responsibilities

When ESL students first move to a new country, they’re usually overwhelmed with adjusting to a new culture and language. Still, you want your roommate to understand as soon as she moves in with you what’s expected of her as a roommate. Sit down with your new roommate after you introduce yourself and ask her to decide how you’re going to divide finances and responsibilities. Explain the different costs (rent, utilities, groceries) and how much you would like to divide the costs. Then explain responsibilities that you’ll share around the house, such as vacuuming, cleaning a shared bathroom, cooking, collecting garbage and dusting and discuss how you’d like to share the chores.

A rotating chore chart may be too overwhelming for an ESL speaker who struggles with English at first, but if you use pictures, you may find this to be the most fair solution.

Write everything down as you decide and make the notes clearly visible on a marker board or bulletin board you display in a shared area so your roommate can access it if she forgets anything.

Laying Out Rules and Settling Problems: Be Patient and Open a Dialog

When you’re laying out rules and responsibilities or whenever you’re talking to your ESL roommate, don’t turn your roommate communication style into a lecture. You’ll be able to better decipher whether or not your roommate understands if you ask her questions and get equal input on any decisions you make. Keep the tone jovial and inviting and let your roommate know you’re willing to explain any parts she doesn’t understand. Be patient and if your roommate seems confused, try to think of another way to express what you’re saying. It’s possible your roommate is shy; however, if you turn any concerns you have into a dialog and not a lecture, you’ll encourage your roommate to speak up and begin to feel comfortable around you.

Remember Cultural Differences

Don’t get frustrated with your ESL roommate (unless she clearly eschews responsibility). Give her a little more leeway than you would with a native English speaker. Besides the language difference, your roommate likely is accustomed to cultural differences, too. While none should preclude your roommate from being responsible in your apartment, you shouldn’t expect your roommate to do everything your way, either. Be open to new experiences and invite your roommate to share her way of doing things with you. It can be a learning experience for both of you.

Chances are, if your ESL roommate is studying in a primarily English-speaking country, she wants to learn English better. Feel free to correct your roommate if there’s some misunderstanding, but do so with patience and in a nice tone of voice, like you’re teaching a student.

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