Language and cultural barriers: Here’s a map to the pinnacle

On the lookout for tips that extend your communications reach?

Suricate - Meercat PhotoI am.

That’s why I talked with Coopersville (Mich.) Area Public Schools Administrator Kathy Gomez about the most daunting communications challenges there is – communicating with and relating to students and parents who don’t speak English and have diverse cultural backgrounds.

Kathy serves as the communications director and migrant education director in a 2,600-student rural school district that’s a 20-minute drive northwest of Grand Rapids.

Coopersville is home to two huge dairies that employ migrant laborers year-round. In the fall, the migrant student enrollment swells with an influx of families who come to harvest the apple crop.

Most of the migrant labor force comes from southern Texas or Mexico. But don’t assume all Kathy’s school communications are in English or Spanish.

Coopersville also draws indigenous Indian peoples from the mountainous southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, who speak “Mixteco” languages distinct to their hometowns.

There are many dialects.

Most of these peoples have little formal schooling.

And many Mixteco languages aren’t written down.

Kathy Gomez

Kathy Gomez

How does a school communicator hurdle so many communications obstacles?

“Mixteco is an extreme example,” acknowledged Kathy, who gained her Hispanic surname through marriage. “Fortunately, people tend to migrate in extended families, so we’ve only had to work with a few of the dialects.”

A middle school or high school student often is proficient enough in English to serve as translator between educators and parents, but Kathy says she has resorted to finding Coopersville graduates through Facebook who can translate for families who are currently enrolled.

Beyond that, she offers these tips for communicating with students and parents with whom schools are separated by a language and culture barrier:

  • Google Translate is a free, online service that instantaneously translates 80 of the most common languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu. Expect a literal translation, not perfection. But it’s the best technology can do.
  • Conferencing with help of a translator. Although your understanding comes by listening to the interpreter, you must direct all questions and answers to the person you’re conversing with, maintaining eye contact with him or her.
  • Parent/teacher conferences. Students are not reliable translators for parent/teacher conferences, especially if they’re in the hot seat. Arrange for a third party to translate.
  • Side-by-side notes. When translating a note, it’s best to provide your translation and the original. There will times both parties will want to refer to the original.
  • Remember that 70 percent of communication is body language. Make sure your posture is open and welcoming.
  • Know your limitations. Even if you’ve spoken another language for decades, your vocabulary may not be sufficient to accurately translate academic language, or materials of great importance, like a special education student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). Hire a professional translator.

Be aware of cultural barriers, too

Beyond language barriers, schools and families may also have difficulty understanding cultural differences, Gomez said.

This obstacle an be particularly precarious in Coopersville. The Mixtecos are both linguistically and culturally distinct from other Mexicans, with whom locals are more familiar.

For example, in the region of Mexico where Mixteco languages are spoken, early marriage is customary. Families are often unfamiliar with American child labor laws and may not understand rules surrounding childcare.

Gomez said American educator Ruby Payne’s book “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” helped her better understand impoverished people, and see connections between a culture of poverty and expectations for education. These insights are the basis for more effective communications.

“Everybody comes to school with baggage, but people with low socio-economic status have more,” Gomez said. “Poverty is a big roadblock for families, but you help by communicating. Talk to them a lot. Ask in a helping way. Offer to make appointments for them (to free and low-cost services in the community).”

Kathy has been employed by Coopersville Area Public Schools for almost 30 years in many different roles – often handled simultaneously.

Learn more from Kathy by reading my previous story about the time she was Hollywood’s right-hand woman when directors came to Coopersville to film a movie. Click here to read the story.

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