When Coffee Talk Is Off the Table: Tips for Communicating with Non-English Speaking Parents

When Coffee Talk Is Off the Table
Tips for Communicating with Non-English Speaking Parents

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 17,898 views

Have you ever been stressed as a teacher?

No, not you! Stress?

Well, if you’re like me you may have had one or two isolated instances of stress in your teaching career.

Here was one of my situations. I had just arrived in a foreign country with very little knowledge of the language (if I was lucky I could ask for directions to the bathroom). Not only could I barely speak, okay I really couldn’t speak Chinese at all, I couldn’t read a single word. I remember carrying around a pocket full of notes with my address and other places I might need to go written out so I could show them to a taxi driver as necessary. I couldn’t have a simple conversation with a person on the street. Challenging, right? It gets better.

I was teaching at a private school, one for internationals. That meant that even though I was teaching in mainland China (have I mentioned I couldn’t speak the language?) my students weren’t going to be from China at all. And they weren’t going to be English speakers either because I was teaching in an ESL classroom. In fact, twelve of my thirteen students were from Korea. Their parents had moved to China for business purposes, and they wanted their kids to get a good education at an English speaking school.

Here I was a recently graduated ESL teacher on the other side of the world with almost no knowledge of Chinese teaching a class full of Korean students. It was actually one of the best experiences of my life, but at the start of the year things seemed a bit tense on my end.

My students were second and third graders, which meant I would have to communicate with their parents at some point and, unless I wanted to ask where the bathroom was, that conversation wasn’t going to happen in Chinese. It also wasn’t going to happen in Korean or English. What was I to do?

You may not find yourself in such an extreme situation, but odds are if you teach young ESL students, there will come a time when you need to communicate with their parents. If you do find yourself in such a position, take a close look at the resources at your disposal. Here are some tips that I learned along the way.

4 Resources for Communicating with Non-English Speaking Parents

  1. 1

    Use an Online Translating Service

    Online translation apps have really improved over the years. Where you might not have been able to rely on a translation a few years ago, today you can get a pretty decent translation into almost any language for free. (And don’t we teachers like stuff that doesn’t cost us money?)

    One key to getting the most successful translation with an app is to do it twice. Start with what you want to say in English and translate it to whatever language the parents of your students speak. Don’t just assume everything is okay with that translation, though. Take it a step further, copy the translated text, and then translate it back into English using the same translation app. This won’t assure you get a perfect translation, mind you, but it might give you a heads up if something translated really far off from your original passage. You don’t want your parents thinking there’s an open barn night when you’re advertising an open house. If you translate twice, you should be able to get your message across without any major issues.

  2. 2

    Ask People in Your School to Help

    Depending on where you are teaching, you may have people at your school who can help. If you are in a situation similar to mine, you could approach someone who has been on the staff longer than you, someone whose language skills might be stronger than yours are or mine were. If you are in the U.S. teaching internationals, try asking the language teacher at your school. Not every high school offers a language program in Korean, but most do have teachers specializing in Spanish, German, or other European languages. And you never know, some of your language teachers may speak a third language they don’t teach in class. Ask at the start of the year so you know who you can rely on when the time comes.

  3. 3

    Communicate in a Third Language

    Speaking of third languages, if my Chinese had been better, I probably could have communicated with my parents using it. Since they were also travelling overseas for business purposes, most of the parents had some knowledge of Chinese even though they were fluent speakers of Korean. A native English speaker talking to a native Korean speaker both in Chinese may not be an ideal arrangement, but it probably would have gotten the job done.

  4. 4

    Recruit Your Kids to Help

    Don’t overlook one of your biggest resources – the kids in your class. Yes they aren’t going to be fluent in English, but they’ll know enough to get them through the school day, and they most certainly can communicate with their parents. Use your students an interpreters when you have conversations with their parents. Most of the time, this works okay. They can tell their parents about upcoming events at school or field trips or other neutral topics. If you need to talk to parents about problem behavior or low grades though, asking kids to do the interpreting isn’t very nice or fair. Try one of the other methods mentioned here.

If you’re wondering what I ended up doing, I did manage to communicate with the parents of my students.

I was actually very lucky there was a teaching assistant in the next classroom who was a Korean woman who was also fluent in Chinese and English. We made things work, and I was ever grateful for her help.

When things get stressful and you find yourself unable to communicate with your students’ parents, your biggest help is to not panic and instead to look at the resources you have at your disposal. Your parents know there is a language barrier. You won’t be surprising them with that one. So they will give you the benefit of the doubt when the two of you are communicating through non-ideal means. And making the communication work is worth the effort. Parents are one of your greatest resources when it comes to teaching young students well.

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