Opinion: More work needed to overcome language barriers

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Opinion: More work needed to overcome language barriers

Ortavia Easly, Staff Writer

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Language barriers in Shelby County Schools seem to be overlooked. There are a number of languages spoken within the county including; English, Spanish, Arabic, African languages, Vietnamese and Laotian. However, English and Spanish are the two main languages spoken.

There are more than 930,000 residents in Shelby County, and more than 46,000 resident are Spanish speakers, according to US Census Bureau statistics. Shelby County also has a relatively high number of African languages, Arabic and Laotian speakers.

Kingsbury is one of the most diverse schools in the county. School data shows that Kingsbury is made up of 91% minority students including African-American, Hispanic, African, Middle Eastern and more. Students and parents are typically given forms written in English and Spanish to take home to parents. It was brought to my attention recently by my African and Arabic peers that they feel excluded. Their parents don’t speak common languages, and they have to translate for their parents. Students and parents who speak languages other than English and Spanish never receive letters or forms in their languages. My peers said sometimes they don’t have time to translate or are unable to accurately translate certain words.

Language barriers are not just a problem for Shelby County. Many schools and communities struggle with overcoming language barriers. More online and paper forms should be printed in multiple languages. On the Shelby County Schools website, applications and articles are only available in English or Spanish. There are no other languages available, which means parents or guardians must go to schools and hope there are verbal translators to help them. Most translators work at schools as ESL teachers and have their own work to complete.

To combat language barriers, Shelby County should provide mandatory language training. While this won’t eliminate all the problems of multi-language work and school environments, it can reduce problems significantly. If, for example, a parent comes in speaking French, workers should have completed introductory French language training. Although they may not become fluent, they will have a better understanding of how to communicate with that parent. Translator devices should be at every school and place of business. In Texas, students received new technology to combat language barriers. Real Time Translation Inc. created software called ESLA that can connect schools to live, professional interpreters in any of more than 190 languages in less than a minute. The ELSA, a small mobile device, is currently helping the staff at Region 16 Head Start and Early Head Start in Amarillo, Texas communicate with families who speak different languages.

Overcoming language barriers is not the easiest task. It is a work in progress filled with trial and error, but that does not mean actions shouldn’t be taken to help combat the issue. It is important to view the problem as a whole and work to resolve it. With Shelby County being such a diverse county, it is only appropriate that foreign language speakers get the same resources available to those who speak more common languages.