American schools are becoming more culturally and linguistically diverse. While many students quickly attain proficiency in English, there’s often a language barrier when communicating with parents. As an ESL teacher, overcoming language and cultural barriers have become part of my job description. Although I’m fortunate to be fluent and literate in Spanish, many of my students and their families are not Spanish speaking, so I find myself in the same predicament as many regular education teachers when having to communicate with non-English-speaking parents.
While Spanish may be the most common home language of many multilingual students, there are pockets of the country where other languages, such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Hmong, Haitian Creole, and Arabic are widely spoken. Perhaps you have a Spanish-speaking staff member on your campus to assist with parent meetings, but if a family speaks another foreign language, you may be in a bind. Conversely, some families are indeed English speaking, and while their accents may be heavy, English is their language of choice, so communication may be challenging. Despite any language barriers, it behooves us to reach out to those of different languages and cultures so they feel welcome and comfortable in our schools.
Here are some tips to help teachers connect with these families:
1. Listen and learn. Ask questions, read, and take the time to learn about their language and heritage. Avoid stereotypes at all cost. Whether you have a predominantly Hispanic, Asian, Arab, or European student population, ethnic groups come in all colors, shapes, and sizes—not to mention dialects and religious backgrounds. Don’t assume anything. People within the same ethnic group, and often from the same country, will eat different foods, speak different languages, and celebrate different holidays.
Here are some examples of common assumptions that can land you in a tight spot:
- When offering a Hispanic heritage night, don’t just serve tacos, unless you’re expecting a predominantly Mexican audience (and even then you might want to offer a more nuanced menu). Many non-Mexican Hispanics are highly offended when folks assume they are Mexican. I know a Colombian parent who walked out on a Spanish night presentation because, according to her, “everything was Mexican.” While the majority of Hispanics in the United States are indeed Mexican, Hispanics represent numerous different countries. In my case, I’m Cuban and grew up in Miami. I didn’t meet a Mexican until I went to Cancun on vacation with my parents.
- If you have a large Indian student population, remember there are 15 official languages and countless other unofficial languages in India. Indians from different regions will not be able to communicate with each other unless they both speak English. Furthermore, although English is actually India’s common official language, it is very different from American English. While it’s likely you can communicate in English, it’s safe to expect some communication breakdown.
- If many of your parents are Asian, be sure to know more specific information about their countries and regions. And please don’t assume that Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese can understand each other. Their languages and physical characteristics may seem very similar, but these groups are vastly different, both culturally and linguistically.
2. Use technology. Professional translators aren’t always available at schools, but Google Translate is. It isn’t perfect, but it works fairly well. If you use Remind, you can copy/paste the translation into your messages so parents receive them in their native language. I set up a Remind group in Spanish, not only to send messages about my class, but also to translate school calls on important topics such as report cards or snow days. Remind also recently released its Translate feature in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and German. For users who set up the app in one of those languages, a translation button will appear when they receive messages in English. By simply tapping a button, messages will be instantly translated into the requested language. If you need translation into any other language, Remind’s private chat feature allows you to send translated messages to someone, by simply copying and pasting from Google Translate. Class Dojo also recently released a Translate feature enabling translation into 30 different languages. While I’m not currently a Class Dojo user, some of my children’s teachers have used it in the past, and I found it to be an excellent tool.
3. Use standard English. Some parents’ English is broken, but they will be able to understand the gist of the message if you speak slowly and avoid slang, idioms, and analogies. Ask for their “two-cents” and they may hand you some change instead of giving you their input. Likewise, an analogy may help a native English speaker more clearly understand a teaching strategy or approach, but to a non-English speaker, it may be completely confusing.
4. Smiles are understood by all. Care and compassion have no language. A warm and friendly demeanor will express much more than words. When parents sense you are genuinely concerned about their son or daughter, they will connect with you and it will improve their child’s school experience.
5. Stay connected. Reaching out to parents is not a once-a-year thing. We need to stay in touch all year long. Connecting with parents helps develop a valuable partnership that will undoubtedly benefit the student in the classroom. All parents want their children to learn. My parents never quite mastered the English language, so they couldn’t help me with my homework, but they held me accountable and pushed me to achieve more than they ever could. They understood the value of education and highly respected my teachers. I find that most families are not very different from my parents. They all want their children to thrive. Staying connected can help parents feel like part of this valued process.
Use some of the technology tools mentioned above. Weekly Remind or Class Dojo messages keep parents abreast of what’s happening in the classroom and can also give you a chance to brag a little.
6. Push politics aside. Our students’ birthplace or immigration status is irrelevant. They are entitled to an education, and it is our job to serve them well. Reaching out to parents will not only generate their support, but will likely increase academic achievement. After all, we want well-behaved, high-achieving students, not dropouts roaming the streets.
As a former English-language learner who entered kindergarten without speaking a word of English, I understood the language acquisition process well before taking my first language-education course. My personal experiences have made me keenly aware of how to best reach out to parents. One thing is for certain. Parents want to know that their child is cared for and valued while at school and that you are not only their teacher, but also their ally. Cultural and linguistic barriers are undoubtedly challenging, but they are not impossible to overcome.