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One New Thing
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
One New Thing: Getting the balance right with ESL clients.

ESL clients being people who speak English as a second (or third, possibly) language. With any client there is always the need to determine exactly how much help you need to give them: when they come in and ask “where are the journals?” you need to judge whether they seriously want to be pointed to a collection that covers a large amount of floorspace, or if they want a rundown on how to search in ProQuest. With ESL clients, you also need to become a good judge of whether they are able to clearly follow your meaning.

When I studied French at uni, we were taught how to read and listen the same way as you would in a native language, that is by hearing unfamiliar words in context and deriving their meaning, rather than running for the dictionary. I know one person asking for directions was confused by my instruction to “come back across the walkway”, never having heard of a “walkway” before. But if someone comes to the reference desk and asks you to look over their 500-word essay for grammatical errors, are they looking for an expert opinion or a native speaker who will pick up basic mistakes? I helped someone today with a question about reference lists, and when I had answered her questions , she carefully began numbering the items to show how she would alphabetise them, and numbered two the wrong way around (e.g. putting Johnson before Johns). I think it’s more these little unknown things, not the “language barrier” as a whole, that we need to be aware of when assisting ESL clients.

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