Overcoming a language barrier: how you can help

Adjusting to an all-English environment can be challenging and overwhelming, especially if your student has not had much practice using English outside of the classroom. Navigating new vocabulary, cultural differences and everyday expressions are common hurdles students face as they adjust to a new way of communicating.

English education

English has become the global language and is taught all around the world. Our exchange students study English in school, but some rarely have a chance to practice using the language or listening to a native speaker. It’s quite common for their written skills to be much stronger than their speaking ability.


If students are lucky enough to learn from a native English speaker, it’s more likely that they will be exposed to the accents and everyday vocabulary of British or Australian speakers, rather than American. The most common way exchange students hear the American accent and learn our unique way of speaking is by watching American movies and TV shows.

Cultural differences

Culture plays a large role in how people communicate. It shapes everything from how direct, reserved and descriptive people are with their words to the hand gestures and facial expressions they use. Some students may be more expressive while others may not be comfortable with direct eye contact. For example, Germans value concise, direct communication, while Thai people may come off as more accommodating and willing to please. Although very different, their way of communicating is seen as a sign of respect in each of their cultures. Communication habits and nonverbal cues are ingrained within us, so it can take time for everyone to understand and adapt to each other's styles.

Idioms, expressions and slang

Every language has idioms, phrases and expressions that don’t translate directly. For example, there is a phrase in Spanish that directly translates to “a lot of noise and no walnuts.” You might be more familiar with its English counterpart, “all bark and no bite.” We use phrases like these every day without thinking about it, so it might be hard for your student to catch on. Even if your student is proficient in English, they may not be able to understand or express themselves using the nuances of a second language.

How can you help

Case study: Language barrier

Communicating in a foreign language can be challenging and at times discouraging. Here are some recommendations on supporting students who are struggling to communicate in English.

Be patient, speak slowly and listen 

Speak slowly and give your student time to respond in their own words. It will give them the confidence to persevere, even if they make mistakes.


Your student may need time to pick up on regional accents and colloquialisms. Explain the meaning of common expressions and try using different words or synonyms while your student picks up on new vocabulary.

Use multiple forms of communication

Avoid misunderstandings by writing down important information, like house rules, so that your student can study any words they do not understand. Leave a journal in their room and encourage them to write down any questions, words or phrases to ask you about.

Limit communicating in native language

The more time your student communicates, listens, reads or simply thinks in English, the more improvement you will see. Encourage them to limit how frequently they text, video chat or speak in their native language.

Ask open-ended questions

“Yes or no” questions are poor indicators of comprehension. Replace questions like, “Do you understand what chores to do?” with an open-ended question like, “Which chores are you responsible for?”. To check for understanding you can ask your student to repeat what you said.

Student perspective

Giorgia from Italy is doing her exchange in South Carolina. She has studied English for over five years in Italy. Her level of English is good, but teachers in Italy focus on teaching grammar and writing, rather than speaking and listening. She has been living in the US for two months, but she still struggles to understand new vocabulary and the American accent. It has made engaging in everyday conversations at home and school more difficult.

Host family perspective

Host parents Morgan and Martin live alone; their two grown kids are off to college. This is their second time hosting an exchange student and they are having a great experience so far. Giorgia and the family have built a good relationship. Morgan, however, has been noticing that Giorgia seems uncomfortable talking with friends and neighbors. She struggles to understand some questions people ask her. Morgan doesn’t know how to help Giorgia build up her confidence when speaking English.

How they handled it

Morgan and Martin decided to take an active part in helping Giorgia with English. They put up a piece of paper on their fridge where they wrote new words that Giorgia was learning and had Giorgia write down the Italian translation. Each night at dinner they reviewed the list of new words in English and Italian and challenged each other to use them in a story. One of the funniest days was when Giorgia had to use the words hedgehog, cartwheel and flabbergasted all together! The paper filled up quickly, so they replaced it about every week. At the end of two months, those few pages had created a small book of all the new vocabulary and phrases Giorgia had learned.

Find the right exchange student for your family

Does your family have any hobbies or interests that you'd like to share with an exchange student? Are you looking to learn more about a particular region of the world? Consider some of these topics and start browsing student profiles today.

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© EF Education First 2011-2021. EF High School Exchange Year is operated by EF Educational Foundation for Foreign Study, a non-profit corporation designated by the U.S. Department of State to operate a J-1 student exchange program. Note: Featured photo/videos do not include prospective students, and are representative of program participants.