A classroom full of students sit engaged listening to their teacher. Interpreters can help parents understand what is happening in their child's education.

Interpreters in Education Are a Must — And I’m Fluent in English

A classroom full of students sit engaged listening to their teacher. Interpreters can help parents understand what is happening in their child's education.
Children benefit when educators work with interpreters to bring family into the conversation about their educational journey. Source: Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

I am a parent of four very differently abled children, ranging from the gifted program, to an Individualized Education Program (IEP), and everything in between.

Over the last few years, I had a lot of different conversations with my children’s teachers and school administration. Even though no language barrier exists, my simple unfamiliarity with the U.S. school system made it difficult for me to follow and understand the decisions made for my children.

I was born and raised in Belarus, on the opposite side of our big world. And so even with my extensive training in linguistics, an English degree, and 20 years of living in this country, I still feel lost navigating the educational system here.

Now imagine that you’re a recent immigrant with limited English proficiency, and you get an email from your school. What does it say? Maybe there is a Spanish translation, but you don’t speak Spanish. How are you, as a parent, going to better advocate for your children? How can you help them adjust and succeed if you have no idea what’s going on? 

We can do better by our children by working with interpreters

Children experience better academic achievement and social adjustment when parents are involved in their education. A simple online search will lead you to dozens of peer-reviewed studies that support this claim.

But many parents in the U.S. today are unable to advocate for their children because of a language barrier. And the children once again get caught in the crosshairs of budget cuts.

Despite the best guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education to “communicate information to limited English proficient parents in a language they can understand about ANY program, service, or activity that is called to the attention of parents who are proficient in English,” many states still offer qualified interpreters only during the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings.

While the passing of the Illinois House Bill 5214 (HB5214) in June 2022 sets a refreshing precedent in the educational community by expanding access to interpreters in the state’s public schools to include Section 504 meetings and multidisciplinary conferences, I still wonder whether that’s enough.

What about the children who do not have special needs or behavioral struggles? What about other programs and services? Parent-teacher conferences? Handbooks? Permission slips?

Related: African-American Vernacular English Is a Legitimate Dialect. Period.

Investing in interpreters in education

The resounding answer to all these questions is YES.

Initial investments in language access would save money in unnecessary services down the road. It would help our students perform better because their parents are able to contribute and support the school’s efforts.

Short five-minute phone conversations with a parent through a qualified interpreter yields better results than the trial-and-error approach.

I see this in action every time I interpret in an educational setting. I see better outcomes.

And it’s not an exaggeration. In some instances, even something as simple as explaining the attendance policy or login instructions helps ensure children do not fall behind.

After being able to clearly communicate with teachers or school administration through an interpreter, parents are more empowered, with a deeper understanding of what’s going on in their child’s school life. They’re able to better support the school’s efforts. They become active participants in their child’s education and overall school life. Everyone wins when schools and parents are on the same page.

Everyone can do something to help

You can contact your local school board about their approach to language access in communicating with parents in the community. Advocate in your local and state governments for better language access laws. If you’re employed in the sphere of education, make sure you speak up to your administration for better language services for limited English proficiency parents and children.

And if you’re in a position to make such decisions for your educational establishment or district, please push for fair and extensive language services in your community. Hire full-time interpreters for your district’s most spoken minority languages. Partner with a language service provider to help cover on as-needed basis.

These acts of encouragement can be the difference between an engaged family and a frustrated one.

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