John F. Kennedy once said, “Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.” But the question I would like to pose is, “If we neglect communication between our English-speaking population and our ever-increasing limited-English-proficient (LEP) population, how can they truly enrich and strengthen our American life?” We used to presume that English was the predominant language of our nation, but clearly this demographic is rapidly changing. In many sectors we are trying to incorporate language diversity into the workings of daily life, and yet the area in which we should be focusing most on communication integration—education—we are not doing so effectively.
Within the field of education, limited research has been conducted on communication integration –specifically regarding the roles and backgrounds of school interpreters, as well as their collaborative practices with school counselors. The majority of published literature has focused on school psychologists’ use of interpreters for conducting behavioral or psychological assessments—often to determine potential learning disabilities or psychological disturbances in students. For these assessments, interpreters are used to interpreting questions and responses orally to ease the communication barrier between the LEP student and the school psychologist. It has not been until recently that researchers have begun to explore the necessary use of interpreters in our continuously evolving school systems. The following reviews of literature in this area attempt to demonstrate how crucial interpreter training and collaboration are to enhanced communicative practices in our school systems.
In 1997, Emilia Lopez and Mary Ellen Rooney, avid researchers and experts in the exploration of the roles of interpreters, published results from a survey study where they investigated the backgrounds of individuals working as interpreters and the specific roles these interpreters fulfilled in schools. Lopez and Rooney addressed four different research questions in their study:
1) What are the backgrounds of interpreters currently providing services to LEP students?
2) Within what grade levels do interpreters provide services?
3) With which professionals do interpreters work with in schools?
4) During which activities do interpreters provide services?
The population sample was collected from New York State, consisting of 89 total interpreters working in 29 different languages. Results from this study indicate that interpreters working for rural school systems, on average, had seven years of interpreting experience, while city interpreters had five. Researchers found 33% of interpreters had master’s level training or higher but lacked certification or degrees specifically in language interpreting. The majority of interpreters worked on a part-time basis and often had other employment in the field of education, thus possessing a more thorough understanding of the school system. Overall, interpreters provided the most services to elementary schools, followed by middle schools, then high schools and preschools.
Education professionals with whom the interpreters reported working with were classified as education evaluators, school psychologists, special education teachers, and social workers. Interpreters were used to help facilitate the conversation between the LEP student (and family) and the English speaker. All interpreting services took place on-site.
Results of this study also indicated that the bulk of interpreting services were provided in evaluations, parent/teacher/student consultations, and psychological assessments of behavior. These results allowed Lopez and Rooney to conclude that individuals who interpret for schools needed to complete a specific training or certification program and nationwide standards need to be established for school interpreters.
Another study conducted by Emilia Lopez in 2000 explores how the use of school interpreters can influence parent/teacher/student consultation in a multicultural high school setting. Consultations between parents, teachers, and students have been recommended in an effort to support academic intervention services for LEP students. In these consultations, academic problems are discussed; students, tasks, and classroom environments are evaluated; interventions are planned; and evaluations are performed. This case study examined five instructional consultations between five LEP students, their parents, consultees (three teachers and two guidance counselors), and consultants (primary investigator and research team). Data was collected over a three-academic year time span.
Results from this case study indicated delays in the consultation process due to difficulties scheduling interpreters, as well as due to the consultees’ and interpreters’ lack of training. All parties recognized and supported the need for interpreters. Overall, Lopez reported that the use of interpreters for instructional consultations was reported to contribute to a more positive communication line between LEP students, their parents, and school staff. Due to the absence of training or standards for school-based interpreters, though, some communication was distorted while being orally interpreted between the parties, thus negatively impacting the rapport between parents and consultees. For example, throughout the consultation process the interpreters would engage in long conversation with clients and parents but would only offer brief English interpretations to the consulting team. Lopez also describes another particular situation during the parent interviews where interpreters stated that they would not interpret everything said during the interview; two interpreters were quoted saying, “Translating everything said was too time consuming,” and “I can communicate the gist of the conversation accurately and that is the most important part.” As the study progressed, this poor interpreting quality helped researchers be able to reaffirm the need for an interpreter-training program or certification, especially for working in school settings.
Although this study helps develop a foundation to create new policy and theories regarding school interpreters, the small sample size prevents results from being generalizable to the larger population. Specific experience levels of consultees and interpreters were not reported within the study, which hinders the representativeness of the sample and makes study replication more difficult. Researchers do offer recommendations for educators working with interpreters:
–Hire interpreters who have experience in providing interpreting services.
–If trained interpreters are not available, look to hire bilingual personnel that you can provide specific training.
–Interpreters should have a high level of proficiency in the language used for interpreting services.
–The reason for an interpreter and what will be happening during the interpreting appointment should be discussed with the interpreter prior to the beginning of the session.
–You should speak in short and simple sentences so that the interpreter is able to orally interpret everything.
In summary, collaboration between interpreters and school staff is crucial to an LEP student’s survival in an American school setting. Results from the above studies indicate the need for official training programs or certification for school interpreters to avoid skewed interpretations and miscommunication. As the US continues to see rising numbers of foreign-born students, employment of bilingual school staff and collaboration with interpreters will inevitably increase, thus creating the need for a streamlined school interpreter training program and increased communication resources to help LEP students continue enriching and strengthening the American way of life.
(Blog by Abigail Thompson, Interpreting Project Manager)