skip to main content

Research & Resources

Breaking the Language Barrier

Anna C. Clifford, Ed.D., Professor of Education

February 25, 2010 - Language Barrier: Disconnect
Dr. Clifford, you will not believe this! I have a student from Russia in my second grade classroom!” As a veteran teacher, my thoughts began to wander through the many facets of the possible impact of the two cultures in the teaching-learning environment. I listened attentively to her words over the phone.

She continued, “He only speaks Russian. He is beginning to pick up a few English words from his peers. His parents only speak Russian, too! What am I going to do?” She was desperate! She had checked with resources in her school and the local school district. The student’s brother was expected to arrive in the states in a few weeks. He would attend the same school and be the ongoing language link. His brother was semi-fluent in English. There were some possibilities, but they were not immediate.

The teacher was experiencing a language barrier. Azzam (2002) described five sources of barriers reported in the Educational Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University and the Education and Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder:

  • Lack of English proficiency
  • School-based barriers (e.g., deficit perspective, a negative school climate, and an unidirectional approach to parental involvement)
  • Low parental education level
  • Separation between school culture and home culture
  • Logistical issues for the family
    • Transportation
    • Parents’ labor-intents work schedules
    • Childcare

Faced with these difficulties, these barriers make it difficult for English Language Learners (ELL) and their parents to engage with their school’s culture. What can teachers do?

Azzam (2009 ) and Holman (1997) recommended the following solutions:

  • Lessen the intimidation factor for parents
  • Realize that some parents will lack a formal education
  • Recognize that for many of these families economic survival is a primary concern
  • Holman (2007) suggested an additional consideration - validating strengths of parents by recognizing these families bring a rich social context with them
  • Promote a Total Immersion Approach to establish crucial background experience
  • Support bilingual educational program

These suggestions are useful and realistic for teachers to implement on a daily basis. However, language continues to be a strong barrier.

Azzam ( 2009), Barber (2003), and Holman (1997) recommended creating support to diminish the language barrier by:

  • Promoting a total language emersion experience
  • Supporting a bilingual educational programs

The total language emersion conducts in-class activities in English language, as well as meals and daily tasks for the students, as well as for parents, when in the school culture.

The bilingual program requires a second-language instructor-interpreter to be employed to teach and support teachers, staff members, students, and parents. The interpreter is a component of a larger second language educational program, building both the English language and the native language. Barber (2003) encourages teachers to:

  • Collaborate with the interpreter
  • Focus on the language and culture barrier
  • Monitor classroom pace and feel
  • Develop students’ teamwork and collaboration
  • Utilize various forms) of media (e.g., text, pictures)

According to the literature, a successful plan must include total language emersion and an onsite interpreter within a bilingual educational program. Yet, for the teacher on the phone and her student, time was critical. An interpreter would not be in place for weeks! How could she possibly create a positive school climate and reach out to a non-English speaking family immediately?

Breaking the Language Barrier
The teacher mention in the introductory sentence of this article called me a few days later. Her voice was much calmer. She had a story to tell. At last, a solution!

Being tech-savvy, she had found a free online tool for translations! She typed in the notes to the parents and the newsletter to be sent home. The tools translated them from English to Russian. She printed it off! In the afternoon when the notes and newsletter were given to the student, the smile from her new friend would have reached all the way to Russia. He knew what he was carrying home – success. He was ecstatic! She continued to use the tools and shared it with her colleagues. For that time, it was the answer to the home language barrier.

Problem solved? I would like to report, yes. However, it was just the beginning. In a few weeks, the student brought a note from home. The teacher was very excited to know that the parents were making the connection and willing to reply. She thanked the student, sent him on his way, and opened up the note from his parents.

What! The note was written in Russian! What now? She was able to cross translate to some degree. In the meantime, prior networking with the local university resulted in locating a student to translate the parents’ note. Their gratitude and connectedness shouted with joy!

By this time, the student’s brother arrived and teaching-learning continued to move forward for this second grader, his parents, and his teacher.

Possible Language Barrier Solutions
Do you have parents unable to engage with the school culture because of a language barrier?
Are you looking for an easy and quick fix to translate newsletter, website, or classnote from English to the native language?

These Web tools maybe helpful to you, as you plan for students in your classroom who need bilingual support:

  • Google Translate
    • Create an account at:
    • Check your email for verification, as directed
    • Click more?even more?Translate
    • Choose languages (ex: English to Spanish)
    • Choose type text block OR upload document OR type in URL for Webpage
    • Click Translate!
    • There it is! You are able to print, as well
    OR try this! Go to:
  • Microsoft Translator
    • Microsoft Translator raises the bar for translating three ways: on the Web, for Office 2007 & 2003, and a unique translation widget for your site.
    • Take a look at this YouTube video to help you on your way!

  • Additional free tools and resources

Much more than I could ever imagine about so many different languages! Wow!


Azzam, A. (April, 2009). Getting parents-and a system-on board. Educational Leadership, volume 66 (7), pages 92-93.

Barber, P. (Winter, 2003). Teaching on-English speaking students. Adult Learning, volume 1 (1), pages 29-30.

Homan, L, (April, 1997). Meeting the needs of Hispanic immigrants. Educational Leadership, volume 5 (4), pages 37-38.

Excellence-Driven Christ-Centered People-Focused Future-Directed