The Manhattan-Ogden school district has children from more than 70 countries who speak more than 40 different languages.
The task to ensure the children and their families have the translation services they need for an academic experience equivalent to their peers whose native tongue is English falls on Emily Cherms, English for Speakers of Other Languages program coordinator.
The number of students enrolled in the program fluctuates as the children’s proficiency levels improve. Last year, about 400 students qualified for the program, Cherms said. However, that is not close to the number of families in the district where English is not the first language.
“I think something that’s important for the community to know is how diverse our communities are,” she said. “Aside from a qualification to ESOL … we’re more in the 1,200 range — 1,200 students that have a language other than English represented in their homes.”
The most common language is Spanish followed by Chinese, and then Arabic, she said. Within each language are many dialects. For example, people from Guatemala and Mexico both speak Spanish, but the language is different.
“Even within Mexico … the dialects are different within different regions of the country as well,” she said. “You see that actually in the Middle East across Arabic as well, very different regional dialects of Arabic exist. Same thing in China, it’s primarily Mandarin, but in other regions of China, it might be Cantonese.”
With so many languages and dialects spoken, Cherms said they try to pair ESOL students with interpreters whose languages more closely align with the child’s.
Sometimes it’s not so easy. Some languages are more dependent on verbal communication and have limited written or print components, she said.
“That’s been relatively challenging because putting some of that print concept to those sounds when you’re trying to work with phonics is hard for students to associate with,” she said. “Things like reading development … you first learn through a sound system. As you begin learning those sounds, then you begin to see them in print and you make that correspondence. It goes from phonemic awareness of the sound to that phonic awareness of the print and that symbolic representation of those, which develops going into reading. So, when you have different languages that don’t have a lot of common or accessible or even historical print resources that makes it challenging for some of the families to develop that literacy skill.”
With so many languages represented the district teaches English strategies. Each student’s experience is different. Some of the ESOL students will have an interpreter with them during the day. For others, if there are several who speak the same language, they may be put in the same classroom.
“We have bilingual staff that can help and support, but because we have so many languages, it’s nearly impossible to always provide native language support in instruction,” she said. “We try to use instructional practices and strategies that help teach English language acquisition.”
For example, this year there is a student whose primary language is Oromo, a language from Ethiopia, for which there is not an interpreter on campus.
USD 383 also contracts with Certified Language International, which gives them access to interpreters of more than 200 languages. This year during Central Registration, a family came in that spoke Pashto, which is the official language of Afghanistan.
The interpreter called CLI to help the family understand the questions. Additionally, Cherms said she has worked with CLI to translate documents.
The Technology Code of Conduct was one example. She read the passage in English, and the phone service interpreted it in other languages. She recorded the audio of the interpretation and embedded it in a YouTube clip and created a QR code for it.
The district’s website also has a translation feature for several languages from Afrikaans to Zulu.
For some of the students, the language barrier is one of several roadblocks they face when they first arrive. When families come from an impoverished or war-torn part of the world, there is an added challenge because of the disruption of their education system. For example, Cherms said Afghanistan’s literacy rate is only about 39%.
“They’ve got the spoken language and are highly intelligent, but some do not have that literacy level, in their native language,” she said.
It is from these families that she has learned about more than just the role of language and communication. The journey many of them embarked on to get to this country has been long and difficult, Cherms said.
“If you want to know what grit and perseverance looks like, it’s these families,” she said. “They have gone through tremendous experiences that we can’t even fathom. And so, education for them — they’ve faced more challenges than education. They are hungry to learn and be educated and be part of our educational system. It’s almost like they’re starving for that information, and to be part of that literacy and language acquisition.”
In addition to the academic education the students and their families are gaining, they are immersing themselves into a culture different from which they came. To help them, Cherms said it is important to try to understand cultural differences, which can put up roadblocks to learning.
“I feel that we need to learn more about their culture in order to help bridge that communication, the culture shock, they may be feeling, and then the social etiquette and differences,” she said.
For example, in some cultures, if a man does not look a woman in the eye when speaking to her, that is a sign of respect.
As the children and their families learn the language, they also learn American culture, but it all starts with the staff who will work with them to make sure the translation is happening, Cherms said.
“Our interpreters are just phenomenal assets,” she said.