Particularly in the early stages of an isolated bilingual learner’s school life one individual barrier is language. Although Hampshire EMTAS can cover a considerable number of the hundred languages spoken in Hampshire schools with bilingual assistance there is a need for self help. What follows is a description of an innovative capacity building collaboration between the EMA service, three primary phase leading teachers in English as an Additional language and a secondary phase lead professional in ethnic minority achievement.
Pupil interpreters in schools with isolated EAL learners
Schools with isolated EAL learners cannot necessarily rely on the fact that there will be an interpreting service or access to bilingual support at the end of a phone or indeed, in existence somewhere within their local authority. Neither is it easy to ‘find’ someone within the local community who may be able to ‘help.’ Families often do not have access to anyone else in their local area, who shares the same language, let alone, speaks English as well. This strategy may also be problematic where an interpreter is drawn from the same (very) small local community as there could be conflicts of interest and issues around maintaining confidentiality. We should also acknowledge the fact that interpreting and translating are skilled areas of work, requiring particular expertise and training. We cannot assume that someone will be an effective interpreter or translator on the basis that they are bilingual. And whilst a member of the community (if found) may be very willing to help, if they are used by schools over a sustained period of time, there may also be ethical concerns in terms of appropriate remuneration and training. Despite these challenges, schools do need to be able to communicate effectively with children, young people and families for whom English is an additional language and the need for interpreters and translators remains a very real one in this context. Schools with isolated learners often need to think laterally and be resourceful and inventive in their approach to meeting needs. Here is an example of this approach in relation to using interpreters.
Picture the scene: a parent who speaks very little English comes into the school reception area needing to communicate an important message about her child. The administrative staff attempt every way possible to understand the message. The parent becomes more anxious and distressed, the admin staff feel increasingly powerless to help. Frustration mounts, finally the parent gives up and goes in search of reinforcement or an alternative way to communicate her message.
The idea of using pupil interpreters first came about many years ago, following this particular situation which arose in a large secondary school with isolated learners. The original intention was to provide admin staff with a small directory of pupils and staff on which to call should a particular language be required when dealing with parents or visitors in reception. Following an initial flurry of enthusiasm and activity, there was limited success as pupils were not shown how to use their bilingual skills as interpreters and this role did not carry a very high status within the school.
In the meantime, Hampshire EMTAS had developed a qualification for adults wishing to train as interpreters and translators in education, accredited by the Open College Network (OCN). This provided a firm foundation from which many bilingual adults were able to consolidate and develop their skills in an educational context. It also provided a route for progression to more advanced training and qualifications in interpreting and translation.
More recently, the notion of developing an equivalent programme of training for children and young people to become school interpreters in Hampshire was explored. The emphasis was placed on interpreting rather than translating due to the likelihood of greater variation in pupils’ literacy skills in their own language, depending on their age and previous experiences. The Hampshire Young Interpreter Scheme was developed as a collaborative venture between EMTAS, three primary phase leading teachers in English as an Additional Language, and a secondary phase lead professional in ethnic minority achievement. It has culminated in a pack of training materials available for different phases. These aim to equip pupils with the skills, knowledge and understanding necessary to be able to support newly arrived pupils through the initial weeks and months.
Many schools have well established buddy systems for new arrivals. The young interpreter scheme does not replace the need for buddies, but adds to it and is a means of providing more extensive peer support. Pupil interpreters will undergo specific training to prepare them for this role and will be selected on the basis of different personal qualities that are described in more detail below. Many pupils take their role as buddy to a new arrival very seriously – it can be a very intensive and onerous task and so is best done by a group of pupils rather than an individual. The work of pupil interpreters is one way that the responsibility for new arrivals can be shared by pupils and staff alike.
Aims and rationale
The main aim of the scheme is to provide focused peer support to newly arrived EAL learners in a variety of ways - particularly through the medium of their first language. This clearly allows pupils to feel more included from a very early stage whilst also helping to support their understanding of English over time. In addition to accessing new arrivals to the language of the school, an important feature of the young interpreter scheme is to help new entrants to feel safe, secure and valued and feel a part of the school. This can be very reassuring also from a parent or carer’s point of view at a time when their child may be adapting to substantial changes. It may be difficult to know how best to support your child when you have experienced a different education system or are new to English yourself.
The Hampshire Young Interpreter Scheme includes planned involvement of parents and carers, and the contributions of young interpreters are celebrated through awards assemblies, letters and prominent displays. Parents and carers of new arrivals are provided with information about the support their child will be given, in first language via school staff with the help of a school interpreter where this is possible. Bilingual parents may also be invited to take part in the training that is provided to pupil participants perhaps by speaking to the group about their own experiences or reading aloud in their own language so that pupils understand how it might feel for the new arrival.
There are also broader, whole school aims which focus on promoting positive messages about valuing languages and celebrating diversity. This can be difficult to achieve successfully in an environment where there are very few EAL learners and the voices of pupils, parents and carers may be harder to hear or be heard. Access to multilingual resources may be scarcer, there may be limited information about individual pupils’ cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds. It may be a particular challenge to communicate effectively with parents or carers and develop strong home-school links. It is important to remember that feelings of isolation are not exclusive to pupils, parents and carers, but may often apply to individuals within schools who are supporting new arrivals. The young interpreter scheme is a way of using the resources that already exist within the school, whereby pupils use their skills to communicate with and help other pupils who are new to English. One of the intended outcomes is for schools with new arrivals to have a bank of interpreters on which to call.
A further challenge is that as the number of languages spoken rises (there are now nearly a hundred different languages spoken by pupils across the authority) it is not always possible to find pupils who share the same language as a new arrival. In this type of context, the concept of interpreting has gradually taken on a wider meaning and focuses on clarifying explaining and interpreting a whole range of school activities, systems and procedures to new entrants through the medium of child-friendly English where first language isn’t available. This means that both bilingual and monolingual pupils are able to participate in the scheme and learn how to become interpreters in the broader sense. This can be very powerful in developing empathy amongst English speakers towards some of the challenges and difficulties that pupils new to English may be facing.
It is important to consider which pupils could make a valuable contribution as a young interpreter. Pupils may be selected on the basis of many different qualities in addition to or instead of having bilingual skills. For example, gifted and talented pupils in languages may be invited to participate at Key Stages 3 and 4. Pupils who are good role models in terms of their English, communication skills and behaviour may be invited at Key Stage 2. Whilst in Key Stage 1, familiarity with the school, kindness, patience and the ability to listen are qualities which may be particularly important. There can be a number of benefits for pupil participants. They often develop new skills, particularly in terms of communicating information either through first language or in English with the support of visuals, gestures and modelling of language. They are also encouraged to include their achievements as an interpreter on their record of achievement or school profile.
An essential feature of the scheme is that interpreters are given a high profile within the school on a par with members of the school council or prefects for example. They are provided with official badges, any useful equipment they may need such as dictionaries, guidance leaflets, notebooks, reward stickers and an agreed role, which is dependant on their age, knowledge and skills. This could include involvement in a variety of activities such as showing bilingual parents and new arrivals around the school, supporting new entrants with homework or reading, supporting school staff to convey key information and messages, or monitoring how well new arrivals are settling in at regular intervals. The role and purpose of young interpreters, along with other related issues such as sensitivity and confidentiality, are explored in more depth during the training which is provided to participants.
It is vital that there is a member of staff within the school who can lead and co-ordinate the scheme, deliver (or co-deliver) the training and provide follow up support for the fledgling interpreters. Anyone with a particular interest in languages and concern for the welfare of new arrivals may take on this role and will be able to deliver the programme. Many of the qualities that are needed to become a young interpreter should also be apparent in the scheme leader! The scheme sits very nicely with SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) or the healthy schools agenda in terms of developing pupils who are responsive to the needs and wellbeing of others.
Once up and running, young interpreters can help to train and support new interpreters, which will raise the capacity of schools to support pupils new to English and ease their transition into a new education system. The value of a scheme such as this in parts of the country where there are isolated learners is that it doesn’t depend on particular resources and services being available locally, but harnesses ‘pupil power.’ It focuses inwardly at the considerable resource that pupils, staff and families have to offer.
Our Young Interpreter Scheme and Community Languages Tasters projects have won the Community Languages Award given by the National Centre for Languages (CILT) for the European Awards for Languages 2010. Well done to everyone, schools, staff and students who took part in the projects. See the Press Release for more details about the award.