Language Diversity In Online Education

We frequently receive requests to present our education courses in languages other than English. As a distance education provider without any background in English as a Second Language (ESL) training, this presents a challenge for our team. We are all English speakers without training in a second language other than Judith who is a Spanish speaker with English as a second language and Robin who has four years of college German too many years ago to count! 

Students with limited English proficiency are often called LEP (Limited English Proficiency) students. The classroom situation can be a formidable challenge for the student academically. Distance learning can make this even more difficult without the use of body language or inflection to help with understanding. 

There have been a few occasions where we have utilized translation software for a particular student in an attempt to help them meet requirements for a specific client - usually a family member.  These students were Individual Providers (IPs) working in a private client's home. There are many translation software options available, but the majority of them have difficulty presenting the translated material in a format that sounds like a natural born speaker.

With the new changes in training requirements for HCAs, we want to move toward being able to have these classes and our continuing education classes available in multiple languages.  The Home Care Aide (HCA) certification final exam is offered in five languages by Prometric and the DOH.  We would like to offer our course in those languages and then explore whether there are other prominent languages or dialects that we should incorporate. The HCA exam is currently available in English, Spanish, Russian, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese.

Even with courses written or recorded in these languages, interaction between the instructor and the non-English speaking student will continue to be a concern.  This is one area where web-based translation software will be used.  Even though it may be lacking in refinement, it will be good enough for an instructor and a student to be able to communicate the basics. 

LEP students come from such diverse backgrounds that it becomes difficult to make generalizations about them.  Some will be able to pick up bits and pieces of English much more quickly than others.  This usually has nothing to do with intelligence or motivation, but is often related to age, native language, literacy of parents, and reason for immigrating. (Teaching Today, pg 1) 

  • Age - we all have watched small children seem to absorb other languages like sponges.  Studies have shown that children younger than 12 years of age, learn new languages much more quickly than older children or adults.
  • Native Language - There are a couple of factors at work here. The first is the student's proficiency in their native language. And the second is what their native language is, because if it sounds close to English, it is easier to learn English and if the first language uses Roman letters for writing it will be easier.
  • Literacy of the Parents - This may seem odd, but studies have shown that if the parents of the student have difficulty speaking their native language, their child will have greater difficulty learning English.
  • Reason for Immigrating - This is not directly due to language acquisition abilities in the student, but may cause psychological issues for a student that will prevent them from functioning well in a group setting. Some examples may be if they are escaping violence or war.  Also, if they were being persecuted for religious or political reasons, they may have issues that delay their learning process.

Another piece of knowledge about teachers need to be aware of with English as a second language learners is the terms Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) versus Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).  Studies show that it may take a non-native speaker in the academic environment two years to master interpersonal communication skills and lyet another five to master CALP.

Cultural differences between the teacher and student can often be a source of misunderstanding for teachers and LEP students. All cultures express themselves in verbal and non-verbal forms of communication.  One example listed states, " Western cultures, when a student smiles knowingly at the teacher, it often indicates understanding. However, in many Asian cultures, it actually indicates confusion or frustration.  It is important for us, as teachers, to learn as much as we can culturally about our student's culture.  Learning about the culture, tells the student we value them and their culture.

One article lists seven teaching strategies to assist with LEP students:

  1. Use lots of visual aids. This can help clarify meaning.
  2. Incorporate hands-on activities to demonstrate concepts.
  3. Allow sufficient wait time.  Remember, it takes time to process the question and then convert their answer from their native language into English.
  4. Model the spoken language.  Try not to correct your students improper use of English, but instead repeat the phrase back to them correctly, but in the form of a question.
  5. Prepare outlines for lectures. Hand the outlines to the LEP student and it will be easier for them to follow along in class.
  6. Encourage skim and scan reading.  This is previewing the material prior to reading it.  It will help them to predict what is coming next.
  7. Avoid forcing LEP students to speak.  It is natural for a Lep student to be silent for a while.  If you force them to speak, they will be embarrassed or self-conscious.  Make sure other students never laugh at them.

In summary, the key to creating effective classes is to know your students.  Understand whom you are teaching.

To begin this large undertaking, we need to locate native speakers of these five languages who also have a mastery of the English language.  We would like to use them to record our current lectures and classes in their native tongue, and then duplicate the current course offerings and do a voice over.

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