Translating to break the language barrier

Interpreters help communication between parents who speak little or no English and teachers, allowing those parents to become more involved with their children's education.

February 06, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

As Hollifield Station Elementary School teacher Debbie Roesch held a parent-teacher conference with Sunae Lee to talk about the progress her daughter was making in school, a third person listened intently and scribbled notes.

Turning to Lee, Kimberly Kim explained - in Korean - that the mother's fifth-grader, Ashley, was doing well in reading and writing. During the 20-minute conference Friday, Kim interpreted the teacher's remarks and other crucial information about Ashley's work to Lee.

Kim's role is an important one that will be played out at hundreds of parent-teacher conferences at Howard County schools this week. Nearly 85 school system interpreters will be on hand to bridge the language barriers as well as cultural gaps between teachers and parents who speak little or no English.

"Since they have a totally different culture and school system, they feel worry and even fear to come to school," said Kim, a community liaison at Hollifield Station and Patapsco Middle School. "Through the [interpreting] service, they feel a safe zone, a comfort zone to come to school."

As the school system's immigrant population has grown, so has the need for interpretation services. To meet those demands - which reached more than 4,000 requests last school year - the English for Speakers for Other Languages (ESOL) Family Outreach Office has been actively recruiting and training interpreters in recent years.

Providing training for would-be interpreters is important because accurate communication between parent and school can be crucial to a child's academic success, said Young-chan Han, Howard's ESOL Family Outreach specialist.

"I want to make sure that our language-minority parents are given equal access to all information and resources so that they can become actively involved in their children's schooling," Han said. "As a result, they help their children succeed in school and life."

Other school districts in Maryland and across the country have recognized the need to find and train interpreters. The Frederick County school system is working to develop a more comprehensive approach to training interpreters after a language bank that served the community disbanded in December, said Elizabeth Hernandez, English as a Second Language (ESL) outreach coordinator.

Some large urban districts have set up offices strictly for translation and interpretation services, including the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Evolving service

In Howard County, efforts have been evolving and growing. When the school system began offering interpretation services about a decade ago, grant money paid for interpreters, said Debbie Espitia, who oversees the ESOL outreach office and the foreign language program.

Now, the school system's operating budget includes money for interpreters, including $40,000 for this year.

"The board has taken ownership of it," Espitia said. "They've seen the importance of increasing parent involvement."

Besides parent-teacher conferences, interpreters also attend back-to-school nights, orientations and other outreach programs. Spanish and Korean are the two most-requested languages.

Han, who coordinates interpreting requests from schools and parents, has access to a pool of nearly 200 interpreters who speak 23 languages. More are needed to provide services to parents of Howard County students from 85 countries representing 77 languages, she said.


The school system finds would-be interpreters through word-of-mouth, referrals and announcements in PTA newsletters.

Being bilingual isn't enough. The school system also looks for candidates who have the "compassion to serve the under-served people," Han said.

Each January, the school system holds a language assessment meeting to increase the number of interpreters. Those who pass an oral evaluation in a mock parent-teacher conference are asked back to a training workshop.

This year, 35 of the roughly 45 candidates attended the training session on a recent Monday. For nearly three hours, the group learned about the growing school system, its ESOL program and services and education jargons and acronyms such MSA (Maryland State Assessment), GT (Gifted and Talented) and instructional levels.

The group also learned that there are two different types of interpreting: simultaneous (interpreter listens and renders the meaning five to six seconds behind the speaker) and consecutive (interpreter provides the meaning after the speaker completes a thought).

Han went over a code of ethics that calls for interpreters to maintain confidentiality, not to inject personal opinions, alter a speaker's thoughts or omit anything.

Moreover, listening is crucial, said Rosa Pope, a Spanish-speaking community liaison at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia.

"The kind of listening you're doing is not listening to the words but to the meaning," Pope said. "That's why it's important to go in understanding the topic."

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