There’s no question that our U.S. population continues to get more and more diverse. This change also impacts the demographics of our student population. Currently, more than half of the students with and without disabilities are from diverse backgrounds, while only 21 percent of our teachers are from ethnic groups that are other than White. Many of these educators don’t speak a second language. When schools need to communicate with their students’ families who don’t speak English or who can speak only limited English, working with interpreters is absolutely necessary.
Currently, there are no required certifications or licenses for language interpreters. Many states also don’t have specific requirements on the qualifications of interpreters, other than being fluent in the target languages. This lack of guidance can be detrimental, especially when untrained interpreters participate in specialized meetings, such as individualized education program (IEP) or disciplinary meetings.
If they are unfamiliar with terms that are used in these meetings or are unaware of the expectations of these meetings, their poor quality of interpretations may have a negative impact on families’ decisions about what’s best for their children.
I strongly encourage school districts to train their own pool of interpreters. Whenever schools need them, they can hire from this pool of trained interpreters. Yet, due to budget constraints, school districts are rarely able to do so. School professionals can use the following tips to ensure that they work effectively with interpreters in meetings to provide high-quality interpretations.
What to Do Prior to Meetings
Identify dialects. Often, when schools hire interpreters, they only pay attention to the languages that parents speak. Many languages, such as Chinese, have many dialects. It’s important for schools to identify parents’ dialects and ensure that the hired interpreters speak the same dialects fluently.
Arrive early. Schedule to have an interpreter arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the scheduled meeting. During this time, school professionals can prepare the interpreters by sharing the purpose of the meeting and expectations of their roles and responsibilities.
For specialized meetings, such as IEP meetings, inform interpreters that everything being discussed needs to stay confidential. Since specialized terms are often used in these meetings and they may not exist in certain languages, a glossary of terms and their definitions should be provided to the interpreters. Interpreters can get familiar with these terms to ensure that they provide accurate interpretations to parents.
Discuss communication preferences. In order not to overwhelm the interpreters with too much information to convey, it’s good for school professionals to discuss how often they should pause to allow the interpreter to interpret. The best practice is to pause after speaking three sentences. Professionals and interpreters can also set up hand signals indicating if they are talking too fast or that a pause is needed.
What to Do During Meetings
Speak with the parents. The meetings are scheduled for school professionals to meet and discuss issues with students’ parents. Because of that, when speaking, it’s crucial for professionals to maintain eye contact with the parents, not the interpreters, even when they know that the parents don’t understand them. This is a way of showing respect.
Pay attention to nonverbal language. Individuals from high-context cultures often communicate using gestures, body language, and nonverbal messages. Besides paying attention to the verbal messages from the parents and interpreters, it’s important for professionals to observe their nonverbal language. Did the parents look confused? Did the interpreter appear not to understand the original message? Did the interpreted message appear to be shorter than what was said? If professionals have any doubts, repeat the message.
Avoid overusing jargon and acronyms. Professionals often use jargon and acronyms throughout their conversations without even thinking about it. This can be challenging for interpreters who are unfamiliar with those terms. If jargon and acronyms are necessary, indicate what they are and their related meaning. This will be very helpful for the interpreters, especially if the terms don’t exist in the target language.
What to Do After Meetings
Hold debriefings. School districts often subcontract and work with specific interpretation companies, and it’s very likely that the same interpreters may be hired for future meetings. School professionals can hold debriefing sessions with the interpreters to discuss what’s working and what isn’t to ensure the quality of interpretations in future meetings.
Give evaluations. Interpreter accuracy is vital, and in order to make sure of that, parents and professionals in attendance at the meetings can evaluate the interpreters, to determine if the same ones should be hired again.
Parental engagement is one of the key variables to support student success in school. It’s especially crucial for those who have children with disabilities, because they’re the only ones who can advocate for the child and make decisions regarding their special education services and placement. Providing high-quality interpretation to families who are non- or limited-English speakers can enhance the communication between schools and home.