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Tongue Tied

ESPs can Help Non-English Speakers Cross the Language Divide

Dave Arnold

Last spring, my oldest daughter, Tina, accompanied me to the National Education Association's Education Support Professional Conference in San Diego, California.

Since San Diego shares a border with Tijuana, Mexico, it offers many bicultural delights. There are two types of food, music, and language.

While my daughter and I toured the city, we heard a lot of Spanish. Tina studied Spanish in high school. I asked if she understood the lively conversations happening around us.

"Not a word," she said.

Communication is Key

It occurred to me how difficult a time I would have trying to work at a school in Mexico. I'm head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Illinois. Been on the job more than 25 years.

Yet, it would be near impossible for an English-speaker like me to work effectively with Mexican co-workers, students and parents. As a custodian, I would be lost trying to decipher directions on chemical bottles, for example.

Unless someone helped me. Then, I know I could survive. So many foreign-language speakers experience feelings of helplessness when they work in the U.S. And it's not because of their skill level. It's over their ability to communicate.

For some education support professionals (ESP), English is their second language. Many struggle trying to understand a label on cleaning solution, or data on a material safety sheet, or the steps of a cooking recipe.

Bicultural ESPs

According to the recent National Education Association's "ESP Data Book: A Work Force and Membership Profile of Education Support Professionals," 94 percent of fulltime staff are U.S. citizens. But, some of these are naturalized citizens who speak English as a second language. Add those workers to the 6 percent of non-citizens and you might find that most U.S. schools have bicultural ESPs.

Para-professionals (5.4 percent) and food service workers (5.3 percent) have the most non-citizens among their ranks. That's nothing compared to our student population. Our  nation's 5 million students speak 425 first languages. For more information about that, check out the January cover story of NEA Today (on the Web at

Cultural Outreach

In 2002, The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Workforce Development Board published a report titled, "Cultural and Language Barriers in the Workplace." Although the following tips were geared toward the private sector, the advice can be applied to ESPs and their co-workers:

  • Hit the books. Learn the culture of the people you are dealing with, particularly if you employ several people from the same cultural background.
  • Don't make assumptions. People do not share common cultural backgrounds or languages just because they came from the same region of the world.
  • Avoid stereotyping. People can share a common language or culture, but it is important to recognize their individuality. Stereotyping gives a narrow view of individuals and limits workplace options.
  • Provide an orientation program. New hires need an orientation to the company, touching on some of the cultural differences and language barriers issues affecting non-native employees. This can eliminate potential problems right off the bat.
  • Take care when training. Make sure non-native employees fully understand your training material. Use graphics or demonstrations to illustrate points to make the learning process much easier.
  • Patience is a virtue. Be patient with non-native workers. Many times immigrant workers feel inadequate and embarrassed when they cannot understand others or express themselves.
  • Use your assets. Use bilingual employees to facilitate communication between you and your non-native staff member.

Regardless of what language we are most fluent in, we are all human beings and should respect each other's heritage and cultural background.

I was lost listening to some of the conversations in San Diego and Tijuana. I try now to remember that feeling whenever I encounter a person from another country struggling with English.                        

(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.