How can tech help address the challenges that schools face with language barriers?

Multicultural Britain is made up of a diverse range of ethnic groups, with high populations of immigrants and non-white people who identify as British. In educational settings this means that some children speak English as an additional language, often at low levels of proficiency making it difficult 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 access to education. 

Why do language barriers matter?

In the UK around one in ten people use English as an additional language and in major urban areas such as London this number reaches approximately twenty per cent of the population. These figures are set to rise significantly due to the UK’s projected population growth, which means children increasingly need more language support in the classroom than ever.

Language barriers impact children in different ways. Firstly, many children start school and find their teachers are speaking to them in a language they don’t understand. In contrast, sometimes teachers start by communicating with children in their own language, but when written words and numbers are introduced, teachers use language children don’t understand. 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.” 

Secondly, some children may be refugees who are settling into a new school in a new town or city, and a new community. This can be incredibly daunting – especially for those who have been through so much already in their young lives. To overcome this isolation, providing children with a way to communicate with teachers and classmates is almost magical to them. It helps these children make friends while learning the language and cultural norms quicker as they can ask questions on things they don’t quite understand. 

Existing communication 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. 

One popular option is to have an interpreter present in the classroom to aid the student’s learning experience by translating the verbal and written communication to them. However, the cost of this resource is often very high, putting a strain on already stretched budgets. Additionally, it doesn’t help to foster a relationship between the child and teacher as there is always a middle person to pass communication through. It can also make some other students feel uncomfortable if there is a ‘stranger’ in the classroom. 

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. However, the LanguageLine can be really valuable with helping school staff with communicating with parents and carers which can also be an issue. 

If a teacher can communicate directly in the pupil’s first language it can produce better learning outcomes while helping to grow better relationships. So perhaps technology holds the key? 

Tech based communication tools 

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

Google Translate offers instant translation between teacher and pupil. However, there are issues with the effectiveness of the translations as it fails to offer a high standard across all languages. Also, it’s often those who speak minority languages that are most impacted by the lack of effectiveness. Further, Google Translate doesn’t always consider regional dialects and slang. 

Alternatively, digital translators such as Pocketalk are an effective way to communicate and help build relationships. They 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. They can also help build stronger bonds between teachers and pupils, whilst helping classmates to communicate so children who use English as an additional language can speak more easily with their friends. 

That said, any type of technological translation solution could fail to grasp the context of specific words used in conversations and then produce inaccurate translations that don’t share the correct meaning of specific words. For instance, the word ‘point’ has a variety of different meanings, and a good human translator should be able to articulate the different meanings and choose the correct one whilst translating language in classrooms. 

Ultimately, there is no ‘one solution fits all’ way of approaching language translation in schools. But, as English as an additional language is becoming more prevalent, it's great for the children in the UK that there are different options available to help overcome language barriers to produce better learning outcomes.  

Joe Miller is the general manager of the Americas and Europe, Pocketalk. You can contact Joe on email: 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.

By Joe Miller, Pocketalk general manager of the Americas and Europe