Serving English as a Second Language Patrons

I still remember how scared and nervous I felt the first time stepping into a library in America. I didn’t really speak English. I looked different than most typical patrons.

“What if they can’t understand my accent? What if they think I am weird?!” I decided that I would not talk to anyone in the library, and I would just look at the signs and use the catalog to search for stuff myself!

I really didn’t talk to any librarian until I had to take a class (I was in college) that required us to work with one. I was so surprised to learn that they were actually very nice, and that they LOVED to offer help for English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students like me!

I don’t want other ESL patrons to feel intimidated by the library and miss out on all the good things a library offers like I did, so I thought I would share some thoughts on ways we as future librarians can help ESL patrons enjoy using the library. Fellow HLS bloggers had also written about serving diverse population and multilingualism in the library in the past.

Greet and Smile

A simple smile tells us we are welcome in the library (this applies to any patron). It also shows that you are someone nice whom we can ask for help from. Be nice, but not too nice – don’t put the patron in spotlight.

If you want to initiate small talk, instead of asking “where are you from,” “what language do you speak” would be a better question, since some people treat their national origin as private information.

However, note that not every culture is comfortable with small talk. Using myself as an example, I had a hard time coming up with responses when I get asked “How’s it going?” or “How do you like it here?” when I first came to the U.S. We are just not used to small talk.

Speak Simple English Slowly and Clearly

Just like sometimes it’s hard to understand ESL patrons’ accent, many of us are not familiar with the American English accent. Articulating and speaking slowly helps a lot.

These patrons may also not be familiar with library terms; for example, they may think “checking out a book” means looking at the books; “renewing a book” means cleaning the book, etc. Please check frequently if they understand what you say. Repeat their questions, and don’t talk when the patrons are behind you. They may not know you are talking to them, or they may not be able to hear well.

Of course, this all depends on the English language level of the patrons too. Maybe the patrons can speak really good English. Don’t assume they don’t and make them feel stupid. (I know, kind of contradicting here… But some ESL have high self-esteem and high confidence on their English level. If you treat them like they don’t speak English, they will get mad.)

Use gestures and writing

If the patron still can’t comprehend what you say after you have been trying so hard talking so slowly and clearly, don’t get frustrated! Try writing and using gestures. Sometimes the patron’s reading and writing level are better than listening and speaking level. That being said, giving them library brochures is also a good idea to make sure they know our opening time, policies, programs etc.

Using gestures and showing the patron what you say will also make them feel you care. Imagine if you speak zero Cantonese, you still won’t understand what I say even I am speaking slowly and clearly. Worst case scenario, use Google translate. The results are not always accurate, but better than nothing.

Offer Library Resources

Depending on the patron’s language level, you can offer language learning resources suggestions. For example, my library has a good English learning collections. If they need to take language proficiency exams like TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System), we have the test prep material! The Rocket Languages app is a great English learning resource we provide for resident card holders.

Also let them know about other collections the library provides, like DVD, manga, online streaming platforms… They may be surprised how much we offer!

If they would like to read books in their languages, MelCat (if you live in Michigan) is a great tool! I have checked out a lot of Chinese books through MelCat. I am sure there are materials available in other languages.

Meeting ESL patrons is not rare working at an urban library. Maybe most of you have already had this opportunity. Communication can be very frustrating with language barriers. Being patient is key. I am sure these ESL patrons would be able to feel your willingness to help, and they will appreciate it!


Useful items: USCIS Serving ESL and Non-English speaking Patrons in the Library Pamphlet

Featured Image: Dictionaries via CC BY 2.0 

Alice Law is a MLIS student at Wayne State University. 

2 replies

  1. Great suggestions, Alice — thank you! I work as a Library Assistant in a public library system in California with many ESL patrons. These are awesome reminders in helping staff like me make sure the needs of all our patrons are understood and met.


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