Living in the melting pot of America creates many exciting opportunities to work with students who come from different cultures and who speak different languages. However, this communication barrier can cause some obstacles. I have worked with many families who only speak Spanish. My main life regret is not continuing on with my second language of Spanish in high school and into college. I am so envious of bilingual colleagues who can easily communicate with these families when I’m left to just smile and nod.
Luckily, I’ve also had the chance to work with many great interpreters. Sometimes this too can be awkward and hard to navigate so I wanted to share some tips to help ease the communication glitch.
Always look at the person you are addressing. If you are talking to your student’s mother, look her in the eyes- don’t look at the interpreter and say “Can you tell her this or ask her that.” Just speak as you normally would if she spoke your language. You will have to periodically stop to allow the interpreter time to translate before their working memory becomes overloaded.
If you are going to be discussing a difficult topic or information with very specific vocabulary, it can be helpful to meet with the interpreter first to make sure they understand the type of conference or meeting they will be attending. For example, if you need to talk to a parent about a child’s behavioral problems it might be helpful to give the interpreter a heads up. Often your interpreter has culture-specific knowledge and can help guide you in the best way to present this information. They can help you understand the perspective the parent might be coming from and avoid offending them. If there are specific documents the interpreter needs to translate, be sure to give them adequate time to review them before being put on the spot in front of everyone.
Don’t forget to account for added time. You will need to at least double the time because everything has to be translated back and forth between two languages. While everything is being translated into their native language, please remember they still may understand more than you think in English. Just as you may understand a few words they are saying in their native language. This may depend or be related to their level of acculturation. If they have recently immigrated they will likely be more unfamiliar and more uncomfortable in their new culture; however, if they have lived here for 20 years they will be more accustomed to their new environment.
The interpreter’s primary job is to translate everything everyone is saying back and forth. This is why it is very important to be quiet and respectful when someone is speaking. If the interpreter is translating something to a parent don’t strike up a conversation with someone else. Think how that would make you feel if you were in a room full of people you couldn’t understand, and they start whispering in front of you and no one ever explains.
Use as many visuals as you can to help support and convey your message. If you are comfortable you might want to greet and end the meeting with an appropriate phrase from their native language.
Instead of asking do you have any questions, ask them what questions they do have. Sometimes people from different cultures are very respectful of school personnel and do not want to question them. By asking them what questions they do have you are allowing them to comfortably ask away.
I hope these tips translate into helping you during your next meeting with an interpreter!