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Lost in Translation: Tips for Teaching Yoga to Nonnative English Speakers

Teaching to nonnative English speakers is challenging, but these tips will help you make sure your teaching transcends all language and cultural barriers.

By Sara Avant Stover

Lost in Translation?

Internationally renowned Anusara Yoga teacher Desirée Rumbaugh finds that the major difficulty she comes across when teaching to ESL students is the translation of terms.

"For example," she explains, "the word for surrender to the Japanese could have something to do with Pearl Harbor, while in Germany, ‘opening’ or ‘melting’ your heart translates to open heart surgery!"

Westring agrees that challenges can arise with translation.

"It is difficult to get the more subtle points of yoga teaching across to nonnative speakers," he says. "We can't rely on some of our regular teaching tools, such as metaphors, stories, and jokes."

Using a Translator

When teaching overseas or even to a group of nonnative English speakers at home, a translator can either facilitate or hamper the experience.

If you only have a few nonnative English speakers in your class, consider pairing them with students who you know have a good understanding of yoga. Have them set up their mats next to one another to offer visual cues.

Be sure to speak slowly and clearly, and be very physical and visual with your instructions. Keep a close eye on your ESL students to make sure that they aren't getting lost. Then offer to answer any questions after class.

When the majority of the students are nonnative English speakers, you will have to arrange for a translator for the class.

"Working with a translator is always challenging," warns Devi. "The timing and flow are dramatically changed, and when relating a story or presenting a dovetailing concept or idea, it can seem choppy and even ill prepared."

As a teacher, you need to adjust your usual rhythm and let go of existing concepts about how the class should flow in order to accommodate the translations. This requires more patience and simplicity than you may be used to.

"When I teach with a translator, I have to slow down and learn how to speak one sentence or phrase at a time and then wait," Rumbaugh says. "Also, there's not a lot of time for wasted words."

To overcome this, Devi advises having a high-quality translator who is both familiar with Sanskrit terms and has a strong command of English as well as one who just translates, without inserting personal commentary. It will also help if you elucidate your words, speak slowly, avoid slang, and position yourself in the room so that the translator can easily see your lips.

Westring advises spending time with the translator before class to go over key points that you will address, as well as the overall flow of the program session. "Maintaining eye contact throughout the teaching session is essential," he adds.

"I also like to pick up a few phrases from the translation and speak in the native language whenever I can," Rumbaugh says. "Sometimes I have my sponsor translate key phrases for me ahead of time, and then I learn and use them."

Strategies for Success

Our experts share some of their secrets to help you make your next international teaching experience more smooth.

1. "Relax. Take your time. Be patient and clear. Convey the essence of what you are teaching and don't get too uptight about all the little details."—Desirée Rumbaugh

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