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It’s Time To Learn the Languages Our Students’ Families Speak

I hang up the phone, words of gratitude and blessings of health ringing in my ears. I pause, my own gratitude rising alongside my relief to know that one more family is OK. Then, I go to my spreadsheet and the cells one by one: No, they don’t have internet. No, they don’t have a computer. Yes, they know the school is sending work home during the closure. No, the student doesn’t have a phone.

In the final box, I write, Everyone is safe and healthy. They have the food and shelter they need, and so far, everyone is OK. H., the student, wants to work on his assignments, but he is not able to access any work from home. His mom asks if we can email her a packet that she will print at work, and he will bring the completed work to school when we all get to come back. She appreciates what his teachers are doing and wants us to know that they are doing their best, too.

I think back to the script that I wrote for my non-Spanish-speaking colleagues. It is a series of yes/no questions, translated into Spanish, to initiate contact with families whose children have not yet turned in any work online. It gives no space for their teachers, who care deeply about the well-being of our students and their families, to ask how everyone is doing. To ask if they need anything. To connect or to catch up.

In Ordinary Times, We Work Around Language Barriers Together

I work in a school where 80% of our families prefer to communicate about their children in Spanish, and fewer than 20% of our staff members are able to sustain a complete conversation in Spanish. Normally we work around this. We gesture. We laugh together. We supply each other with missing words. Phrases like “gracias por venir hoy” y “que tenga buen día” to start and end a conversation bridge a gap, even as that chasm yawns wider at other moments.

Trevor Noah wrote, “Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”

We lose those moments of togetherness in a video conference, to say nothing of a phone call. Every awkward pause that these virtual interactions are already fraught with is magnified when two individuals are trying to communicate across languages, and they are amplified even further when we add in a translator. With a translator, we gain clarity but lose connectedness. Without a translator, we lose the details. 

A colleague who has beginning-level Spanish skills has been working to contact all the families that she works with directly. Her calls in English are three times longer than her calls in Spanish, she tells me. She knows that all parents have questions, but she worries that parents just don’t ask her as many questions because they know she’ll struggle to answer. In everyone’s shared discomfort, she thinks, it’s often easier to hang up than to continue fumbling through.

Even in Remote Learning, We Can Take Small Steps to Bridge Language Divides

Building bilingual school and staff communities takes time, and we need solutions now more than ever. Here are a few things to do right now:

  • Use Google translate for texting and emailing, which allows for open-ended conversation and processing time for all parties.
  • Get on Duolingo or another language platform to start building both linguistic capacity and understanding of new language learning.
  • Keep trying. Even when imperfect, the effort to reach out to families, especially when our closure is indefinite, is the first step in building community.

While we are applying our short-term solutions, we must also recognize that the task of creating language-inclusive schools requires long-term vision. Supporting legislation at both state and federal levels elevates the role of bilingualism in schools and makes concrete strides towards the systemic change that we so gravely need. 

As we continue to identify the inequities in access and opportunity brought even further to light by this pandemic, it is imperative that we include the home languages of our students and their families in our strategy. Noah also wrote that, “Language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.” We must ensure that as schools, we define ourselves as accessible, open, and welcoming for all families, starting right now and into the future.

Rachel Brick is a 9th grade English and ESL teacher at Pritzker College Prep in Chicago and a Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.

Photo credit:  Dan Gold on Unsplash

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Rachel Brick

Rachel Brick is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow. Rachel is a 9th grade English and ESL teacher at Pritzker College Prep, where she serves as the English department chair and the English learners coordinator. Before teaching in Chicago, Rachel taught 1st grade in New York City at P.S. 46 and 180. In New York, she was a founding Common Core Fellow and worked with teachers to develop and implement CCSS curriculum. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a BA in English and received her MS in Dual Language/Bilingual Childhood Education from the Bank Street College of Education.

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