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For Your Consideration 7.2

Tips for Teaching Limited English Speakers

The Decent Council of the Oakland Museum, in Oakland, California, produced a highly instructive text to assist docents who tour visitors with limited knowledge of the English language. Their manual, entitled Expanding Horizons: Art Museum Tour Techniques for Beginning and Intermediate English Speakers, offers recommendations for making your speech more understandable to Non-Native English speakers. They are:

  • Go slowly. Remember that visitors are translating as you speak. As in any language, many English words sound like other words and have multiple meanings.
  • Punctuate your pauses. Practice giving out “chunks” of information and then pausing to let visitors translate that which was imparted into their own languages. It is much easier to translate phrases than individual words.
  • Articulate carefully. Enunciation is important as there are many dialects of American English. Pay attention to articulating consonants which are especially important to understanding English words.
  • Use adequate volume. In much of our normal conversation, the endings of words and sentences are allowed to drift out of hearing range because the person being addressed knows in advance how the word or thought will finish. This is often not the case with ESL visitors. The sense of your explanation depends on your audience hearing each word clearly.
  • Eliminate slang expressions or idioms.
  • Use simple verb forms whenever possible. “We will see several examples,” rather than “We will be seeing several examples.” “This basket was used for gathering plants,” rather than “This basket has been used for gathering plants.”
  • Use the subject – verb – object formula whenever possible.
  • Use rhetorical questions to repeat information. “California has a very diverse population. Why did so many different kinds of people come to California? They came from many places for many reasons.”
  • Watch out for proper names. For beginners, proper names cannot be distinguished from other unfamiliar words. It is better to say, “This artist’s name is Elmer Bischoff,” or “This painting was made by an artist named Manuel Neri,” rather than “This is a Manuel Neri.”
  • Expand your non-verbal vocabulary. Many concepts can be clarified by using gestures and body language. What gestures could you use to reinforce these ideas: “The red line sets a mood of anxiety,” or “The lines in this painting give a sense of balance”?
  • Practice! Practice! Practice! Adapting your speech is not difficult but does require practice. As an exercise, work with a partner and select one work of art. Interpret the same work three times, modifying and simplifying your speech each time and incorporate feedback from your partner. Your third presentation will show a marked improvement.

The Lost Museum

During the Second World War, the Nazis had a guiding ambition to assemble for Germany the greatest treasures of European art, as well as to enrich the personal collections of powerful Nazi leaders. In his meticulously researched account of the wartime trade. The Lost Museum, Hector Feliciano chronicles the systematic looting of art by the Nazis, most of which was stolen from the collections of prominent French-Jewish families.

Many of the works were returned to their owners after the war, but thousands of them were not. Some of these “lost” art works are tracked down to their present locations in Europe and the United States. More than 2,000 of the works that were looted or sold to the Nazis found their way into French national museums, where they are labeled as “unclaimed.” Still others can be found in Switzerland.

This fascinating book is sure to rivet readers with museum connections and interests.

Learn and Play

Whether a weekend seminar or a 14-day cruise, the Smithsonian Institution’s travel programs combine the best of going to school with being on vacation. Groups are small and led by authorities in their respective fields. Smithsonian Study Tours and Seminars, 1100 Jefferson Drive, SW, Washington, DC 20560. (202) 357- 4700 or

“For Your Consideration,” The Docent Educator 7.2 (Winter 1997-98): 11.

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