Sunday, September 12, 2010

It's Not Just The Words: English-Speaking Teachers & Spanish-Speaking Parents

Most, if not all, teachers in this region of North Carolina, and many other areas of the US, are concerned with communicating effectively with the parents of their students who speak Spanish. I am often asked how to say a certain phrase in Spanish to help facilitate this conversation. Much of the time, I direct these non-Spanish-speaking teachers to the website Casa Notes which gives some standard school notes in Spanish. While this can be helpful, the issue is much larger. It is not only one of language but also one of culture. Consider the following excerpt from A Teacher's Guide to Diversity.


The language barrier is not strictly a matter of school personnel’s and parents’ understanding the vocabulary and syntax of each other’s language. Often communication problems lie below the surface, at the level of invisible cultural expectations. Teachers’ and parents’ values are expressed in the topics they introduce in conversations with each other, in the priorities they assign to these topics, and in their approaches to setting goals for children (Greenfield, Quiroz, & Raeff, 2000).22

Cross-cultural communication problems have been shown to affect schools’ relationships with families from non-dominant cultural groups (Greenfield, Quiroz, & Raeff, 2000; McCaleb, 1997; Valdés, 1996). In many cultures, personal communication is valued over impersonal communication, such as written notices or letters, and families want personal interchanges that are not always formal (Diaz, 2000; Finders & Lewis, 1994; Levine & Trickett, 2000; McCaleb, 1997; Morris, 2002; Trumbull et al., 2001; Trumbull, Rothstein-Fisch, & Hernandez, 2003). Schools, however, rely on written communication to convey many important messages to parents, a mode of communication that oral cultures may not be used to or find appropriate. Personal, impromptu interactions that may be the norm in some groups are not favored in schools: In many schools parents need an appointment to visit a classroom or talk with a teacher or principal.

In Valdés’s 1996 ethnographic study of 10 Mexican American families in Southern California, she recounts several instances of communication breakdown between parents (mainly mothers) and schools. In one case, a mother relayed a message to her younger son’s teacher via his 8-yearold brother to the effect that the younger son was not to eat the fish whenever it was provided at lunchtime because he was allergic to it. It is not clear whether the teacher discounted the message because it was verbal and from another child or whether the message was not properly delivered. However, the upshot was that the child continued to eat meals that made him miss days of school from time to time because he was sick. Not realizing that a message from a child might not be taken seriously in the way that a note from a parent would, the mother concluded that the school did not care about her son.

Other communication issues arise when the sociolinguistic norms of the dominant culture and those of a non-dominant culture conflict. This topic is dealt with in the language volume, largely in relation to difficulties students may encounter when the communication expectations of school differ from those of home. However, adult-adult communication can, obviously, suffer from similar discrepancies in rules of conversation and other forms of communication. Dominant-culture communication tends to be direct but not confrontational, whereas the communication of many cultures (e.g., Latinos and Asians of many ethnicities) tends to be indirect (Azuma, Hess, Kashigawa, & Conroy, 1980, cited in Clancy, 1986; Trumbull et al., 2001). In some cultures, such as Japanese and Arab, saying “no” to any question is avoided (Clancy, 1986; Moosa, Karabenick, & Adams, 2001). Needless to say, this conversational rule can be extremely disconcerting to a cultural outsider.

Expressions of emotion are considered by many African Americans a natural part of argumentation, and they may feel that European Americans are being disingenuous when they contain their emotions during an argument (Kochman, 1990). European Americans may be put off by the emotional elements of argumentation, believing that they interfere with logic and reason. These are just a few of the many cultural differences in communication style, differences that are rooted in the values and beliefs of cultures and—like most deep cultural patterns—invisible to people except in a sense of discomfort they may feel when their patterns are not observed by those with whom they are speaking.

With some awareness of possible sources of communication breakdowns, teachers can contribute to more successful cross-cultural communication with parents. Although it is impossible to be an expert on every culture’s style (and, of course, people within cultures vary considerably), being attuned to how parents and families seem to prefer to communicate can alert teachers to ways they can make communication more successful.

22 This observation is not intended to minimize the value of teachers’ learning a language other than English in order to communicate with families. In addition, second-language learning can be a source of cultural learning as well.

As teachers, it is vital that we remain aware of who we are teaching. Language is only one of so many barriers. Too rarely do we think of our students as being culturally different than ourselves. Just because we share a skin tone or a regional background doesn't mean we are the same. We all hear and communicate differently based on our unique perspectives and experiences. This awareness makes our job as teachers more difficult but can also make it more rewarding if we take the time to learn from those we teach.

Okay, enough of my grandstanding! What do you think? Have you had experiences dealing with students of other cultures? What about students that you assumed were part of your own culture but as time went on you realized they were different too? What have you learned?

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