Sunday, September 20, 2020

Communication Is Possible Despite Language Barriers

Image created using Quozio

Developing relationships with students in a remote or socially distant environment is awkward, but it's especially difficult connecting with English learners with whom we don't share a common language. This year, I've been asked to make phone or video calls to newcomer ELs whose teachers aren't able to communicate with. And I'm happy to take on this extra work. While I get pulled primarily for translation, I take the opportunity to develop relationships and help ease the anxiety of having to learn remotely, in a new country, and in a new tongue. 

During the five years, I got to serve as a Secondary ESL teacher, overcoming language barriers became part of my job description. Although I am fortunate to be fluent and literate in Spanish, many of my students were not Spanish speaking and I found myself in the same predicament as many of my colleagues. But I will say that as challenging and daunting as it may seem, linguistic barriers are not impossible to overcome. 

While it's wonderful to have a human translator, they aren't always available. However, there are several tech tools at our fingertips that work fairly well. And even when the translation isn't perfect, they get the message across. One thing they do translate is your willingness to make an effort to connect and communicate. And that, in it of itself, speaks volumes. 

Image by Sayyid 96 from Pixabay

The following tech tools are free and easy to use. If you are not familiar with them, I encourage you to check them out.

  • Google Translate. This familiar tool to many of us can actually be a teacher's best friend. It works on any type of device. Messages can be keyed or spoken and likewise, translations can be read or listened to. If you use the app on your mobile device, it will also let you scan text, instantly producing a translation. Google Translate is my go-to tool when in a pinch and no human translator is available. If you are meeting with a student over Zoom, you can copy the translation from Google Translate and past it in the chatbox. 
  • Talking Points. A text messaging tool that allows educators to connect and communicate with students and their families. It's free for teachers, though there are premium features that schools can pay for.  Although I've never used the tool myself, it's a staple for many ESL teachers, and everyone I know who uses it gives it rave reviews.
  • Remind. Many educators use this app for communicating with students and families, but don't often use (or may even be aware of) its powerful translation feature. With a simple tap, messages can be translated into any of 70 different languages. 
  • Microsoft Translator for Education. A site that provides free resources and tools for captioning and translation in the classroom, but what I love the most is its conversation feature that provides real-time translation. There are many ways this tool can facilitate conversation when there is no common language. I recently sat in a demonstration during a PD session and was very impressed.
There are some meetings that necessitate a professional translator, but for most of the daily interactions that help us build relationships with students, technology tools like these are more than adequate. While they may not be perfect at times, more often than not they translate accurately and are tremendously helpful in bridging communication gaps. 

Image Credit: wilgengebroed

Bottom line, kindness and compassion are understood by all. A warm smile and friendly demeanor can express more than words can say, despite a language barrier.  There are many teaching strategies that can help with making content comprehensible, but as Dr. Comer alluded, relationships are essential to learning. And it's difficult to develop a relationship, much less a significant one, if there's no communication. Technologies like the ones I listed not only translate, they also let the student know that you are their ally, not just their teacher, giving them a sense of safety and belonging, which will likely help them work to potential. 

If you aren't already, I challenge you to take small steps to directly connect with students with whom you don't share a common language. You'd be surprised how far even just a greeting will take you. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Until next time, remember it's the tidbits that make it all grand. Take care.

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