Lost in Translation: Reaching Out to English-Language Learners

How do you say “Tomorrow’s assignment is . . .” in 460 languages?

By Kim Girard

The call came a week before school started. A woman from a local refugee agency told Susan Mayberger, director of English as a Second Language (ESL) programs for Omaha Public Schools, in Omaha, Nebraska, that ninety Somali Bantu students, refugees all, would arrive in a several days.
“We weren’t prepared,” says Mayberger, whose programs serve 6,000 ESL learners, about 89 percent of them Spanish speakers. Not surprisingly, adds Mayberger, “we had no one on staff who spoke Somali.”

Already struggling with meager federal budget allotments for ESL students, Mayberger scrambled, using money from a refugee grant to hire a local interpreter to translate for the families. Meantime, her teachers used the Internet to learn more about Somalia. Many of the soon-to-arrive teens had never held a pencil or a book, Mayberger says. Others’ parents had been killed.

“Some had had horrendous experiences,” she says, adding that her expectations, particularly for the older children, have had to be humble. “My goal is to give them enough English to get a job, to survive.”

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