Language of Compassion: Multilingualism in the Library

HeartbyhandPhoto credit: Wikimedia Commons

The month of February is most recognized as the time we celebrate our love. It’s a time when we speak the “language” of love as a means to show our devotion to that special someone. But what happens when the language we speak to express ourselves is not the same language expressed by others? How do we communicate to one another simple tasks that feel impossible when language becomes a barrier? What can we do as library professionals, to make expressing ourselves, not necessarily in the language of love, but of compassion for those whom English is their second language?

Quite simply, a lot. Let me share with you, my story…

English is my second language. When I was six-years-old my parents divorced and my mother decided to move our family – myself and my two younger sisters – to Florida from Puerto Rico. She believed that learning English would ensure our success as adults and decided that our new home would provide us with more linguistic opportunities than  in our home town of Fajardo, Puerto Rico. I had begun my elementary schooling there, but would continue the remainder of my schooling in Central Florida. When I was a first grade student, I had a hard time comprehending English. I pronounced words such as “chair” and “chicken” with a “sh” sound, rather than a “ch” sound. And I could not understand why it matter that the way I spoke was incorrect to others. I struggled a lot and did poorly in my school work. I would eventually be sent to a school for foreign language speakers, and after three days of horrific experiences (I didn’t know where my class was or how to get lunch, I was yelled at by a peer and a teacher when I couldn’t understand instruction, and I was physically pulled and tugged at when I failed to understand directions).

After many nights of crying and pleading with my mom, I was “dis-enrolled” from that school and the next best option was to return to my elementary school and take ESOL classes. It proved to be very successful and my teacher was extremely patient with me and my peers. By the latter half of elementary school, I struggled less and my grades significantly improved. It was a tough part of my early childhood, but I learned first-hand what it was like to speak a language not commonly expressed by others while trying to integrate into a new environment. I also learned what it was like to be bullied, talked down to, thought less of, and isolated from others.

So can you imagine, for a moment, when someone who does not speak or understand spoken English very well, be it due to primarily speaking a foreign language or an impairment such as being deaf, what they must feel when they need to communicate with you?

Now can you imagine what it must be like if you could understand them, their feelings, as well as, their language?

Back in 2008, the Urban Libraries Council Exchange (ULCE) wrote the following regarding the importance libraries have to new immigrants, “…libraries are effectively responding to the biggest barrier for new arrivals: language. Innovations in signage, websites, collections, and provisions of basic services in the first languages of their new residents, make the library more usable, more effective, and far more welcoming.”

In echoing ULCE’s statement, a key benefit when learning a foreign language or sign language is that you will help to create a welcoming environment. Welcoming environments create repeat library users who bring others to the library with them, like members of their family as an example.

Some tips to consider when exploring a new language include:

Know your users.

  • What are the demographics of your library’s user community?
  • I worked in an urban public library and encountered lots of different individuals from various backgrounds and language comprehension.

Know the language common in your community.

  • What are some of the most common languages that you hear or see in your library?
  • The most common languages encountered during my public library experience were: Spanish, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Vietnamese and Sign language.

Pick a language that speaks to your strengths.

  • Is there a language that you understand because it is spoken by family, friends, a spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend?
  • I decided to reinforce my Spanish speaking and writing skills because it was spoken at home and was a common language at my library.

Once you have a language that you desire to learn more of take advantage of the resources out there that will help you to learn.

Consider these resources:

  • Consider taking a college elective in the language of choice. If you don’t want to have the class affect your GPA, consider instead to audit the class (contact the instructor first, so that they aren’t spooked by someone in their class and not on their roster).
  • Use your school resources, public library resources, your employer’s resources, as well as, friends and family to help you learn and improve your language skill set.
  • Go online, watch videos, read, have conversations, take a trip (if it’s within your budget)
  • Dine at a restaurant of your choice that serves cultural foods in that language.
  • Listen to music, movies or other media in that language
  • Be daring and consider working in a library institution overseas

Consider the basics:

While working in the call center of my local library, I once took a call from a Portuguese tourist and we spoke bilingual to one another- I in Spanish and he in Portuguese. It was extremely difficult and we managed through it, but I wished I knew the basics of his language in order to have provided him with a better customer service experience in the library.

So if you do not have sufficient time to learn the breadth of that language at least learn the basics such as the greetings that say:

  • “Hello”
  • “How can I help you today?”
  • “I’m sorry, I speak very little ____ [insert language], do you speak English?”
  • “Okay, let me find someone who can speak ____.”,
  • “One moment, please.”
  • “Thank you.”
  • “You’re welcome.”

Even with these basic greetings, the patron will be grateful you tried. It will minimize the barrier that creates isolation of not understanding the language and your attempt at speaking their native language will make them feel at ease and more appreciative of your help.

Lastly, there is a language etiquette one should try their best to adhere by. Some of these suggestions may be considered controversial, however, as library professionals, we have to be mindful of our patrons and peers alike. The purpose behind speaking a second or third language is to be welcoming. To open up a means of positive communication. In doing so, we help to create a comforting environment for all and prove that libraries are vital for communities of all cultures to flourish.

Things to keep in mind:

  • When speaking to someone who speaks a foreign language do not talk down to them or raise your voice. It can be seen as an offensive gesture. They are not dumb, nor hard of hearing. They need someone who can speak in an even and understanding tone.
  • If the person gestures in sign language let them express themselves as best as they can to you. It is important to listen intently as well as visually. Once you understand you may speak in return (since some individuals can read lips) or communicate by writing things down.
  • Use your facial and body language. Smile when you are greeting the individual. Look concerned when you don’t understand. Gesture when you wish that the individual waits until you can get someone who can translate.
  • Some workplaces have rules that outline when and where a foreign language can be spoken. Be mindful of those parameters.

So, how have you contributed to the universal love language of compassion? Do you also speak a language other than English? Have you used it to help your patrons? If not, are you considering to learn a new language? Share your thoughts and experiences below.


11 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I work in the Southwest and have interacted with a lot of Spanish-speaking patrons. My Spanish skills are ok, but working with patrons who speak another language is particularly challenging because I am hard of hearing. One issue I struggle with is knowing when I’m speaking too softly, and explaining to patrons that I can understand them only if they will speak loudly to me.


  2. You’re welcome Allison! And thank you for sharing that perspective of yours as well. It’s important to find that middle ground where both parties can communicate effectively. Thank you for highlighting this point 🙂 -Aidy


    • And to add, some of us will feel disinclined to help others because of our own personal barriers, so when someone who is shy, or hard of hearing, or does not speak the language of the patron, actually tries to provide assistance, it means the world for that individual. I’ve seen that happen first hand. If no one else has thanked you for providing that kind of assistance, let me be the first of many to say thanks! 🙂


  3. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I live in an area with very little diversity in the languages spoken by our patrons, which makes it even harder for library staff to be mindful of many of the things you mentioned. I have found that nonverbal communication is extremely important. I have been able to help patrons simply by reading their body language and using very few words. Librarians need to be mindful of how our body language and tone of voice can cause patrons to feel unwanted or afraid to ask for assistance.


    • You’re very welcome Kovarjm! Body language is a really crucial component of interacting with others and I agree, how you physically present yourself to others greatly affects what gets communicated. I’ve heard it a lot from a customer service perspective in libraries, that negative body language whether done on purpose or subconsciously, can hurt your patron base. Being mindful of as you pointed out, “nonverbal communication” is a benefit to all parties when encountering language barriers in day to day interactions. Thank you for sharing this!


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