Translating to break the language barrier
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Feb 10 14:09:58 UTC 2005
Translating to break the language barrier
Interpreters help communication between parents who speak little or no
English and teachers, allowing those parents to become more involved with
their children's education.
By Hanah Cho
February 6, 2005
As Hollifield Station Elementary School teacher Debbie Roesch held a
parent-teacher conference with Sunae Lee to talk about the progress her
daughter was making in school, a third person listened intently and
scribbled notes. Turning to Lee, Kimberly Kim explained - in Korean -
that the mother's fifth-grader, Ashley, was doing well in reading and
writing. During the 20-minute conference Friday, Kim interpreted the
teacher's remarks and other crucial information about Ashley's work to
Kim's role is an important one that will be played out at hundreds of
parent-teacher conferences at Howard County schools this week. Nearly 85
school system interpreters will be on hand to bridge the language barriers
as well as cultural gaps between teachers and parents who speak little or
no English. "Since they have a totally different culture and school
system, they feel worry and even fear to come to school," said Kim, a
community liaison at Hollifield Station and Patapsco Middle School.
"Through the [interpreting] service, they feel a safe zone, a comfort zone
to come to school."
As the school system's immigrant population has grown, so has the need for
interpretation services. To meet those demands - which reached more than
4,000 requests last school year - the English for Speakers for Other
Languages (ESOL) Family Outreach Office has been actively recruiting and
training interpreters in recent years. Providing training for would-be
interpreters is important because accurate communication between parent
and school can be crucial to a child's academic success, said Young-chan
Han, Howard's ESOL Family Outreach specialist.
"I want to make sure that our language-minority parents are given equal
access to all information and resources so that they can become actively
involved in their children's schooling," Han said. "As a result, they help
their children succeed in school and life." Other school districts in
Maryland and across the country have recognized the need to find and train
interpreters. The Frederick County school system is working to develop a
more comprehensive approach to training interpreters after a language bank
that served the community disbanded in December, said Elizabeth Hernandez,
English as a Second Language (ESL) outreach coordinator.
Some large urban districts have set up offices strictly for translation
and interpretation services, including the Los Angeles Unified School
In Howard County, efforts have been evolving and growing. When the school
system began offering interpretation services about a decade ago, grant
money paid for interpreters, said Debbie Espitia, who oversees the ESOL
outreach office and the foreign language program.
Now, the school system's operating budget includes money for interpreters,
including $40,000 for this year.
"The board has taken ownership of it," Espitia said. "They've seen the
importance of increasing parent involvement."
Besides parent-teacher conferences, interpreters also attend
back-to-school nights, orientations and other outreach programs. Spanish
and Korean are the two most-requested languages.
Han, who coordinates interpreting requests from schools and parents, has
access to a pool of nearly 200 interpreters who speak 23 languages. More
are needed to provide services to parents of Howard County students from
85 countries representing 77 languages, she said.
The school system finds would-be interpreters through word-of-mouth,
referrals and announcements in PTA newsletters.
Being bilingual isn't enough. The school system also looks for candidates
who have the "compassion to serve the under-served people," Han said.
Each January, the school system holds a language assessment meeting to
increase the number of interpreters. Those who pass an oral evaluation in
a mock parent-teacher conference are asked back to a training workshop.
This year, 35 of the roughly 45 candidates attended the training session
on a recent Monday. For nearly three hours, the group learned about the
growing school system, its ESOL program and services and education jargons
and acronyms such MSA (Maryland State Assessment), GT (Gifted and
Talented) and instructional levels.
The group also learned that there are two different types of interpreting:
simultaneous (interpreter listens and renders the meaning five to six
seconds behind the speaker) and consecutive (interpreter provides the
meaning after the speaker completes a thought).
Han went over a code of ethics that calls for interpreters to maintain
confidentiality, not to inject personal opinions, alter a speaker's
thoughts or omit anything.
Moreover, listening is crucial, said Rosa Pope, a Spanish-speaking
community liaison at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia.
"The kind of listening you're doing is not listening to the words but to
the meaning," Pope said. "That's why it's important to go in understanding
The school system also provides workshops for more advanced interpreters
and to handle special education parent-teacher meetings.
Nora Heinz, 55, of Columbia, a Spanish speaker, signed up to be an
interpreter two years ago. Heinz, whose three children graduated from
River Hill High School, said she wanted to use her knowledge of the school
system and her language to help the community.
"I get a great deal of satisfaction in helping people," said Heinz, a real
estate agent. "When I came to the country, I didn't have a language
problem. But just the idea of coming to the country and not knowing what
to do. ... I have the skills, why not do it?"
It's a service that's much appreciated by teachers and parents.
"It has definitely made me more in touch with the parents," said Roesch,
whose conference with Ashley's mother went smoothly. "There was a time
when older children would come in and try to interpret and even the
children would try to interpret. I always felt that I wasn't able to
communicate with the parents. [Now] the parents are more comfortable and
more open to share what they're interested in and their concerns."
Copyright 2005, The Baltimore Sun
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