Donovan Group Insights

Strategies for Multilingual Communication in Diverse School Communities

Your school district is a vibrant community filled with people from a wide range of backgrounds. That often means there are a wide range of languages spoken in your community, too. Despite this, English is often the dominant language used in district communications, which puts up barriers for stakeholders whose primary language is different.

District leaders must approach communication from a multilingual perspective. That way, every stakeholder can receive critical information in their preferred language. More than that, multilingual stakeholders will feel like valued members of their community.

Take stock of the languages in your community

The first step to effective multilingual communication is identifying which languages are represented in your school community. This should go beyond identifying the top two or three languages that are used among most stakeholders. In order to connect with the widest audience possible, district leaders need to be aware of all the languages in their community, even if a language is only represented by a small percentage of the population.

There are several methods for identifying the represented languages within your community. You can run a data analysis on school records to gather a list of native languages spoken by students and their families. In stakeholder surveys, you can ask participants to name their primary language, stating that their answers are fully confidential and for district use only.

Identify the stakeholders who need translations

After identifying the languages in your community, keep track of which stakeholders will need content translated into their primary language. These stakeholders could be students, staff, parents, caregivers or people in the broader community. Identifying translation needs will ensure you’re communicating the right way, to the right people, at the right time.

For the stakeholders who are most involved in your schools, such as students, staff and parents, your communication team can look up the information that’s on record for each person to confirm their primary language. This information can ensure teachers and administrators are communicating with individual stakeholders appropriately.

Translate critical pieces of information for families

There are many pieces of information that must be translated, so parents and caregivers can properly support their students’ academic endeavors. Families need to be informed about class schedules, school- and district-wide updates, how to access online assignments and strategies for fostering learning at home. Many families will also want information about school menus, support services and cocurricular opportunities.

When in doubt, ask families what they need. Check in with multilingual families to see if they’re receiving all the information they want (and in the appropriate language). Each family has a unique situation, and they know better than anyone else what they need. Make communicating with multilingual families a priority!

Ask about preferred communication methods

Connecting with multilingual families involves more than simply translating information into their primary language. The teachers and administrators in your district should keep a record of each family’s preferred method of communication, whether that be via call, text, email or video chat. For relaying public information, consider setting up a community Facebook page for families who share the same primary language.

It’s important to consider families’ individual preferences because a specific communication method might work for one family but not another. For example, phone calls are best for families without direct internet access, and texts are ideal for working parents who would prefer to respond at their convenience. When it comes to families, approach communication on a case-by-case basis.

Connect families with support services

One of the most effective ways to bridge communication barriers is by connecting multilingual families with in-person support staff, such as interpreters, paraprofessionals and family liaisons. These staff members are highly knowledgeable experts with a thorough understanding of various cultures and their associated primary languages.

Your district might also choose to experiment with translation apps. These apps can instantly translate written messages into any language, providing families with the information they need quickly and efficiently. However, it’s worth noting that translation apps are not suitable for communicating sensitive information to families. They’re also no substitute for the in-person professionals who can help foster trust and relationships between families and your district.

Create content in multiple languages

Make it a habit to translate public-facing content into multiple languages. It’s better to anticipate and satisfy the communication needs of multilingual stakeholders rather than wait for them to express those needs. In other words, communication should be proactive, not reactive.

For instance, teachers can partner with paraprofessionals to create take-home letters in the appropriate language for each student and their families. School interpreters can translate infographics, website copy and social media posts into various languages. Again, think about who’s viewing the content and what their needs are.

Offer closed captions for video content

Video content must also be accessible to multilingual stakeholders. Your district likely produces a range of video content, from superintendent updates to testimonial videos highlighting what stakeholders love about your district. Closed captioning is a quick and efficient way to translate one piece of content into multiple languages.

While closed captioning is a very useful tool, computer-generated translations don’t always capture exactly what the speaker is trying to say. After your team produces a video, ask one of your school interpreters or paraprofessionals to review the closed captions. This will ensure technical terms are translated correctly, and the captions reflect the speaker’s intended tone.

Partner with professional translation services

Teachers and administrators should make good use of the available resources within their district. These resources might include interpreters, family liaisons, paraprofessionals or other school staff who are proficient in multiple languages. However, not every district possesses the internal resources they need to communicate with multilingual students, staff, families and community members.

That’s where translation services come into play. Your district can hire professional translation services to assist with multilingual communication needs. Translation services are backed by experts who are fluent in multiple languages and understand the cultural traditions that come with those languages as well. These services go above and beyond simple translation apps, focusing not only on exchanging words, but forming district-stakeholder relationships as well.

Gather feedback from multilingual stakeholders

Make time to check in with multilingual stakeholders on a regular basis. It’s important to ask them about what’s working and what’s not, so your team can tailor their communications appropriately to each family and stakeholder group. Is the communication too little or too much? What’s the best way to get in contact with them? Which content still needs to be translated? These are all great questions that your team can compile into a multilingual stakeholder survey.

As mentioned before, no one knows what your stakeholders need better than the stakeholders themselves. Their needs can change over time, too, which is why district leaders should always make sure their communication efforts are up to date.

Do your people have the support they need?

Take an honest look at your district’s current communications. Are they serving the entire community, or just a portion of the community? Every message from your district should be created with a mind for diversity. Multilingual communication is about far more than speaking in the appropriate language. It’s about building trust and strong relationships. Show underrepresented populations that they matter!

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