Improved language support in the classroom needed now more than ever

Joe Miller, general manager of the Americas and Europe at Pocketalk, looks at how tech can help overcome language barriers in education 

Currently around 10% of UK residents speak English as an additional language (EAL) and in major cities this number rises to around one in five people. Additionally Data from the ONS shows that net international migration will account for almost 75% of UK population growth over the next 25 years, with most migrants having EAL.

For educational settings, this creates a growing number of children with EAL, often at low levels of proficiency, making it challenging for them to learn. Because of this there is a real need for interpreters and technological solutions to ensure all children in the UK have proper access to education.

The impact of language barriers 

At present, nearly one in five schoolchildren in the UK speak EAL and this number is set to grow as UK immigration rates keep increasing. Recent arrivals to the UK who need language support include refugees fleeing a number of countries including the Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iran. This diverse mix of origins means that a solution is often required that can cover multiple languages.

Language barriers affect children in different ways at school. Many children find they simply can’t understand what teachers are saying to them. There are times when some teachers are able to communicate with children in their own language, but when written words and numbers are introduced, students get lost.

According to research by Save the Children: “Children learn to copy and often memorise the words and numbers, but don’t understand them and can’t apply them usefully. In these situations, many children drop out of school altogether, while others fail their examinations and spend years repeating grades.”

Also, some children who speak English as an additional language may be refugees who are settling into a new school within a new community, like those who have recently arrived from Ukraine. This can be an incredibly scary and isolating experience, particularly for children who have already been through traumatic experiences in their young lives.

For teachers it can be incredibly frustrating to not be able to communicate and teach effectively. The additional time and support this takes will impact on their already strained time for teaching.

Existing translation solutions 

Clearly there is a need for language translation services in schools, but this comes with significant costs and is not always quick to implement. Having an interpreter present in the classroom to aid the student’s learning experience by translating the verbal and written communication is a popular solution. But the high cost of this service often puts a strain on already stretched school budgets. Also, this option doesn’t help to foster a relationship between the child and teacher as there is always a middle person each communication must pass through.

Another option is the LanguageLine, which is a phone service that provides access to interpreters of multiple languages in minutes. But this is not practical in a busy and noisy classroom and can be distracting for the children. But the ability for a lecturer or teacher to communicate directly in the learner’s first language will produce better outcomes while helping to grow better relationships, which is where new technology can help.

New technology can help

There are various technology-based translation solutions available such as Google Translate that can take away some of these pain points. Each translation option comes with its pros and cons.

For example, Google Translate offers instant translation between teacher and pupil but there are issues with the effectiveness as it fails to offer a high standard across all languages. It’s often those who speak minority languages that are most impacted by this lack of accuracy. Also, Google Translate doesn’t always consider regional dialects and slang and requires a smart device – something many children don’t have access to in school.

Alternatively, digital translators offer an effective way to communicate in a large number of languages. These devices can help to overcome language barriers by providing instant two-way translation, both verbally and through translating photos of words on documents like pages of a book or other learning resources.

Enabling children a way to communicate independently with teachers and classmates is almost magical to them in helping them feel more comfortable in their new surroundings. It helps these children make friends while learning the language and cultural norms quicker as they can ask questions about things they don’t understand.

Overall, there is no one, universal way of overcoming language barriers and approaching language translation in schools. Each school and student will have a different requirement.

But, as English as an additional language is becoming more prevalent, it’s going to become increasingly important that schools invest in solutions that don’t leave children behind. What is encouraging is that there are a growing number of different options to overcome language barriers to produce better learning outcomes.

Joe Miller is the general manager of the Americas and Europe, Pocketalk. Pocketalk is a multi-sensory two-way translation device. It utilises the best translation engines around the world to provide a consistently accurate experience across 82 languages, including localised dialects and slang.

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