161: Unleash the Potential of English Language Learners with Katie Nielson

In the US, we often take English language skills as a given. But for the millions of immigrants, refugees and foreign language speakers, English can be a barrier to contributing their best and reaching their potential at work. As managers, we have the opportunity to support our language learning colleagues which in turn give us access to greater talent pools while simultaneously enabling people to thrive inside and outside of work.

Today’s guest is Katie Nielson. Katie is the founder and Chief Education Officer of Voxy EnGen, a public benefit company that leverages proprietary technology to deliver high-quality, needs-based English instruction to immigrants and refugees. Voxy EnGen rapidly gives language learners the tools they need to advocate for themselves and their families and improve their economic outcomes. Katie has dedicated her career to making language learning more accessible and effective using innovative technology and research-based best practices. She earned her PhD in SLA from the University of Maryland in 2013, and she holds ten patents on the technology she designed to deliver language learning at scale.

Katie and I talk about the challenges and opportunities that often exist when working with colleagues who are still developing their English language skills, how to better engage and support these colleagues, and how to distinguish what English skills are truly needed so you can unleash the potential of each person regardless of their current level of English proficiency.

As a special guest bonus for five members, Katie has generously offered 30 minutes of personalized consulting on how to make their organization, product, or workplace more welcoming to speakers of other languages, whether those speakers are clients, employees, consultants, or the community at large. To be eligible, you must be a member. Learn more and join at www.themodernmanager.com/join.

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Read the related blog article: How to Support English Language Learners In The Workplace


Website: www.voxyengen.com

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/engenkatiebrown/

Key Takeaways:

  • To work on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we need to include supporting immigrants and refugees in gaining the English language skills they need to thrive.
  • In the US, we meet the needs of a mere 4% of adult English language learners. This means we’re leaving a lot of talent untapped.
  • Language is often taught wrong. It needs to be relevant and experiential. Employees should learn from real examples of people talking with managers, doing customer service, and reading through employee manuals, to get the specific English they need for the workplace.
  • The hiring process can be full of bias, like hesitating to hire someone with an accent because they are harder to understand or foreign degrees might not feel as “familiar” or “acceptable”.
  • Consider whether specific degrees or credentials are really necessary or whether they may be prohibiting you from tapping a wider talent pool and building a diverse workforce.
  • Consider your responsibility in improving communication. Slow down when speaking to help the other person understand you better or ask them to repeat themselves indicating you value what they have to say and want to be sure you’ve understood them.
  • Ask what they feel their strengths and weaknesses are and what areas of English language they need support in.
  • There are four skills to fluency, which includes the receptive skills of listening and reading and the productive skills of speaking and writing. Someone may be fluent in some areas and not in others, and not all skills are critical for each role.


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