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

By Kym Reinstadler, SCN Feature Writer | Expert Insights

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.
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