The importance of an accurate, instant 2-way translation tool is reflected in the sheer numbers of limited-English students as well as the magnitude of languages spoken today in U.S. public schools. According to facethefactsusa.org and reports from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2013, ten percent of U.S. public school students struggle with the English language (see Figure 1). This does not capture the higher rate of families / parents at home that struggle even more with the English language.
The average number of languages spoken within urban school districts across the U.S. varies greatly, but it’s certainly a high enough number to require districts to employ on-call translation services. In NYC schools, it is estimated that over 800 different languages are spoken, and across the nation this varies by state and area.
With this many students and families in need of translation and this many languages spoken, it is close to impossible for teachers, schools, and districts to provide equal opportunities for involvement and conversation to all students and families. Even if information is translated, it often turns into single direction communication. Families have no way to respond or ask questions in their native language, There is no opportunity for these families to become to truly engaged and have conversation with the school.
For many school districts, the best they can currently do to handle multi-language translation is to contract with an on-call translation services firm. The typical on-call translation service provides for a one-way communication with, at best, a 24-hour turnaround time. Even worse, this type of service is prohibitively expensive for our public schools.
Recently, we heard the story of an ELL student who was mentally unstable and in need of immediate family support. It was critical that their parents or family members be immediately alerted yet no one on site spoke the needed language. The only option for the school district was to submit a request to a translation service in order to send the parents the needed message. Minutes truly mattered in this potentially tragic situation. It was an unbearable burden for administrators to shoulder.
With technology advances, there’s no reason for teachers and schools to bear such a feeling of helplessness. As our school communities strive for higher levels of parent engagement, it is critical that we look for options that allow for easy and instant translation in both directions. It’s time to give all students and families a voice. Imagine what our school communities will look like in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, and even further in the future if we begin engaging all families with the translation technologies available today.