Language Barriers and Conversation Starters

Starting conversations with refugees can be intimidating, especially when talking to someone whose first language is not English. Eventually, communication will flow more easily as volunteers develop confidence and gain experience. You can always use Google Translate or a phone app to help you along, but sometimes this can result in people focusing too much on technology rather than building relationships. Below we have included a number of questions that can serve as conversation starters as you become acquainted with refugees.

Getting Started:

Facial expressions – emotions like joy, fear, sadness, surprise, concern, disapproval, confusion, and understanding can be expressed through our face. (practice “stage faces’’ in the mirror or with friends – be overdramatic to ensure your expressions are portraying the appropriate feelings.)

Gestures/Actions – if you are telling a story or giving a command, physically do the actions as you say them. Also, point to or touch objects or people you are referring to. This is called “TPR” – Total Physical Response. (practice by playing charades with friends)

Photos/Images – get an Oxford Picture Dictionary, magazines, and/or use Google images to reference objects, or to help you explain or describe something. Example, for Easter, the whole “painted eggs” or “egg hunt’’ concept is difficult to explain, so pull up a picture of a painted egg on your phone or show a magazine clipping of kids with baskets in a field – a picture is worth 1,000 words. (Practice by researching and gathering and organizing resources, so you have a nice variety available to use).

Drawing pictures – if prepared images are not available, keep a notepad handy and resort to stick figures. This is sometimes better for conversation, because you can draw things as they come up, without having to break the flow of conversation to go hunting for images. (Practice by playing Pictionary with friends).

Real objects – as often as possible, use the real thing. If you are in their house, point out or pick up objects to teach. Take them to a grocery store and wander around and discuss food for a while. Go anywhere and talk about your surroundings, or bring things with you that might be related to the subject you want to discuss. For example, if you are trying to schedule an appointment, have a clock and calendar handy to interact with.

With all of these ways to communicate, remember to STILL use English words. If you keep words simple and few, and pair them with these things above to aid in understanding, people are much more likely to retain and recall new English words.

[Tips provided by Connie Chandler, MAT-TESOL. Connie can be reached at]

Background/General Information:

At first, keep conversation causal and light in the beginning, try not to ask questions as if it is an interview. Volunteers can provide feedback to the individual’s responses by sharing from their own experiences.  Storytelling, creative activities, and light humor are often helpful.  It is also helpful to plan an activity with the refugee and conversation is often an emerging part of that experience. Volunteers should not hesitate to share with a WRD staff person if they are uncomfortable with any information a client shares. 

  1. Tell us about yourself and your family (names, ages, grades, etc.). Do you mind telling us about how you came from your home country to the United States? (You should introduce yourself as well.)

  2. How long have you been in Durham/North Carolina?

  3. What was it like when you first came to the United States? (Remember, some families have only been here for a few days.)

  4. Do you like the United States, school, jobs, etc.?

  5. Can you teach me some words in your language?

  6. What is your job? What did you do in your home country?

  7. What kind of food do you like?

  8. What do you like to do for fun? (Remember that many have just come from very difficult circumstances)

  9. Ask about thoughts on international celebrities, music, sports, weather, food and holidays.

Goals and Challenges:

  1. How can people help refugees in America?

  2. What are your dreams and hopes for you and your family? How can someone like me help you in reaching these dreams?

  3. What are your goals for the next year that could help you reach those dreams? How can someone like me assist you in reaching these goals?

  4. What are some of your biggest challenges here in the United States? How could someone like me help you with these challenges?

  5. How is your home country different from the United States?

  6. What do you miss about your home country? Do you want to go back some day?

  7. What is the biggest thing you want to see happen in the refugee community and in your life?

Talking to Kids:

  1. What do you want to be when you grow up? (Remember that some may have never had a chance to hope and dream like we do here -- now's the time to give them a chance to do just this. Dream with them.)

  2. What is your favorite subject in school?

  3. What do you like to do for fun?

Sharing Your Story:

  1. Discuss your own interests, what you do for a living, where you live, etc.

  2. Share your favorite activities and things you would like to show them.

"Breaking the ice" during meals, minding the language barrier:

When refugees arrive, they have usually traveled for several days without resting, so do not take it personally if they do not want to socialize immediately. For later encounters, here are some helpful mealtime ice breakers:

  • Bring a translation dictionary to learn some words in their language and begin teaching them some English. Teach/learn words for the food being served and begin teaching some daily phrases.

  • Pictures are universal! Bring some paper and pens to communicate via drawings.

  • If their alphabet has different characters, ask how to write their name(s) in their native language and show them how to write yours. Ask them to teach about their alphabet (if literate) and show them the English alphabet.

Overcoming language barriers:

  • Volunteers are to understand that language barriers will occur between them and the refugees whom they are befriending. This is okay! Language barriers are awkward, and volunteers are to embrace this. Refugees who do not speak English understand that they cannot understand you and you cannot understand them. Be patient, use hand motions and have fun with GoogleTranslate and dictionaries. 

  • Exposure to the English language and persistence on a refugee's part are key to learning. 

  • As volunteers expose themselves to the accent of the refugees whom they are befriending, they will be able to understand their English better.

  • Do not be afraid to use broken English. Sometimes this can help refugees.

    • For example: Say "You go, grocery store, bread" instead of, "You should go to the grocery store to buy more bread." Or say, "Tomorrow, three, I come" instead of "Tomorrow at 3 p.m. I will come to your house to visit you." 

Listening to refugees:

  • Oftentimes, many refugees have not had the opportunity to be listened to. Volunteers have the honor of providing this type of empowerment for them. Take time to listen and learn about their culture. 

  • Take time to ask intentional, specific questions that show you genuinely care about building a relationship and knowing the refugee. 

  • Understand that refugees may not understand things that you would consider common sense. Be patient and work with them. 

  • When refugees make mistakes (either in their English or in actions) be sure to find a balance between when its healthy to correct them and when it is hurtful

  • Sometimes it is more beneficial to observe refugees rather than ask questions.

[Adapted from World Relief, Stand for the Vulnerable: Refugee Family Friendship Guide]