Are virtual services right for your family, school or district?

Providing Multilingual Support in Mainstream Classrooms  

5 min read
Teacher reading to a student
Joo Young Hong, MSEd, PhD, a Clarke teacher of the deaf, with Clarke preschooler Daisy.

Clarke teachers of the deaf (TODs) work with children and caregivers who speak a multitude of languages. Whether those children’s families are proficient in multiple languages, just learning English or somewhere in between, TODs have several strategies they can use to ensure that they’re providing effective support and communication.  

How Multilingualism Impacts a Child with Hearing Loss

There is a common misperception that children with hearing loss shouldn’t—or can’t—learn more than one spoken language or they’ll get confused and never reach full proficiency in any of them. Even parents who are multilingual are often hesitant to have their children with hearing loss learn more than one language.  

But those concerns are not backed up by statistics, notes Joo Young Hong, MSEd, PhD, a Clarke teacher of the deaf who uses a cochlear implant and a hearing aid. “Children who are learning two languages often engage in code-switching or code-mixing. That’s a natural part of language acquisition but can be misread as confusion,” she says. In its most basic sense, code-switching is defined as alternating between two or more languages, while code-mixing is the combining of two or more languages. (Learn more about these linguistic processes—and others—here.)

In fact, being able to communicate in more than one language has multiple benefits, especially for children who have hearing loss. “Studies on children who are multilingual show that even those who do have smaller vocabularies also have lifelong neurological, cognitive and linguistic benefits,” says Joo Young, who is a native Korean speaker and learned English as a second language. 

According to the Department of Education, bilingual people have an easier time cultivating flexible thinking and abstract thought due to their ability to switch back and forth between languages. Studies also show that people who are bilingual—compared to those who are non-bilingual—are better at various other cognitive skills, including using logic, understanding math concepts, focusing and remembering.

Having a second (or third) language in one’s toolkit can also help children with hearing loss connect more easily with extended family who may or may not live in this country, as well as their local community. “When children can connect with their communities, it builds confidence and self-esteem,” notes Joo Young. “They can think about where they’re from and how they are connected.” It’s also a powerful tool for building a child’s sense of identity.  

Supporting Multilingual Students

It’s not possible for TODs and other hearing health professionals to know every language spoken in their communities. Working with children who speak a language they don’t presents challenges that may require modifying some teaching approaches.   

If a child is bilingual from birth, in this case meaning that their home language includes English and another language, the TOD’s work is pretty similar to what it would be with a child who speaks only English.  

But if a child is learning English as a second (or third) language, TODs should be prepared to see code-switching or code-mixing — meaning that the child may mix words or grammatical units like prefixes from one language into the other.  

Joo Young notes that for a multilingual child, it’s very important to have both an agreement between the home and the school to ensure that the child is learning both languages in equal measure and careful observation to monitor that proficiency is being reached in both. “One challenge for TODs is that it can be hard to make language assessments if you don’t understand one of the languages they speak,” she notes. “We also don’t have a lot of evidence-based interventions because the research just isn’t there for the most part.” 

One technique that Joo Young says has been very successful is incorporating culturally responsive instruction. For example, while Americans generally celebrate Thanksgiving with a traditional dinner, many other cultures have their own versions of a fall harvest celebration. TODs can be more inclusive of their students by including those ideas and themes in their instruction, and because the students have a personal connection to those ideas and themes, the lesson becomes more impactful. 

Supporting Multilingual Families

Parents, caregivers and other family members are key partners in helping their child with hearing loss develop listening and spoken language skills. But if the student is learning English and their family members are not fluent, it can be challenging for family members to feel they’re part of the support team. Fortunately, there are ways that TODs can ensure that they are included and comfortable.  

“Some studies show that bilingual parents feel overwhelmed, that teachers are biased, or that the information they get is limited,” says Joo Young. “So we need to think about the parental perspective. How can we make it less overwhelming and more adapted to the parent?” This requires a TOD to have a solid understanding of the family, their home environment, the best ways to communicate effectively and whether there are any cultural differences at play.  

Consider the typical meeting for a child’s individualized education program (IEP). IEP meetings can feel overwhelming for many parents and caregivers — a feeling that is substantially magnified if the meeting is being held in a language in which they aren’t fluent.  

Professional educational interpreters are available for these meetings, but Joo Young says that families are often more comfortable using an informal interpreter of their own choosing. “Having a personal interpreter can make them feel less like a ‘stranger’ is being given details about their child. We need to understand and work with their preference,” she recommends.  

Regardless of what kind of interpreter the family chooses, there are several steps TODs can take to help the family understand the IEP process.  

Beforehand, it’s helpful to connect with the family and the interpreter (whomever they choose) to define everyone’s roles, share information about the procedure, go over terms they may not be familiar with and answer confidentiality questions.   

During the meeting, it’s important that all team members speak directly to the caregiver — not to the interpreter. “It can feel isolating to use an interpreter,” says Joo Young. “It’s important to focus on the parent and make them feel included.” It can also be helpful to keep an eye out for nonverbal cues that indicate that both the interpreter and the caregiver do (or don’t) understand what’s being said and are (or aren’t) comfortable with the process. (Find listening and communication tips on Clarke’s blog post: Are You An Active Listener?) 

At the end of the meeting, be sure to summarize the key points to the family in writing (in their home language).

Joo Young says it can also be helpful to touch base with the interpreter after the meeting to clarify if there were any interpretation-related difficulties and to request feedback from the family to see if they were satisfied with how the meeting went. “This information can help improve future interpretation-involved parent-teacher meetings,” she notes.  

Working with multilingual children and their families can present challenges to a TOD, but with some careful planning and the aid of an interpreter, a difference in language doesn’t have to present a barrier to communication.  

Webinar Series

Join Clarke experts for webinars designed to help LSL professionals and families of children who are deaf or hard of hearing to grow their skills, knowledge and confidence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *