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Don’t let language barriers hinder global learning

By Team ISTE 4/26/2016

Global collaboration initiatives that let children learn about other cultures by communicating with their peers around the world open up a host of opportunities for both students and teachers.

But one common obstacle — communication barriers — can derail even the best organized global learning experiences. These barriers go beyond one class speaking English and another speaking French or Chinese. Accents and colloquialisms can be hard for students to decipher. Even when two groups of students speak the same language there can be struggles to understand each other — even within the same country – especially in video chats where the connections aren’t always crystal clear.

Julie Lindsay, an educator based in New South Wales, Australia, knows all too well the pitfalls of such collaborations. The founder of Flat Connections, she’s had a lot of experience organizing projects that bring together students from dozens of countries.

Take for example, a challenge that cropped up during a Global Youth Debate, where students in different countries debate online over a period of weeks. After a first round of debates between Australian and Indian students, one group of debaters complained that they couldn’t understand the other group because of the accents. It was also clear that the two groups had different meanings for the same words. It was a real struggle, Lindsay said, to compete in a debate where you couldn’t understand the opposition.

Lindsay offers these four tips for creating better intercultural communication:

  • Use clear, global language.
  • Use alternative language for better understanding.
  • Do not expect colloquial sayings and local phrases to be understood without explanation.
  • Question actively for intercultural understanding.

Students will struggle to learn from each other and can become discouraged from collaborating altogether if they can’t understand one another, a point Lindsay was able to see clearly from the debate experience. That’s why Lindsay suggests educators add other tools to supplement video and audio chats, including:

Supplement conversations with written documents. Blogs, PowerPoint presentations or other texts remove the accent obstacle and can also help to put colloquialisms into context. In global debates, Lindsay suggests presenting written bullet points of the oral arguments.

Make sure everyone has the same tools. Some of Lindsay’s favorite collaborative apps include VoiceThread, Padlet, and Fuze. However, it is important to make sure that the apps you’re using are available in the country you are collaborating with. Google, for example, is banned in China, so the schools that connect with China need to find alternative apps beyond Google Drive.

Use pictures to tell a story. Pictures really are worth a thousand words. When English-speaking students try to communicate with students who speak another language, they often get stuck trying to understand each other. Lindsay suggests using photos to start discussions about common themes, like family pets. Students around the world tend to bond over their love for cats, dogs, birds and other pets.

Model using visual cues. Educators can assist students to overcome the language barriers by demonstrating how to use visual cues or asking for clarification during communication breakdowns.

“Global learning allows for a shared understanding between cultures,” Lindsay said. “It gives children a chance to explain their daily life to someone else.”

Order Lindsay’s new book The Global Educator: Leveraging Technology for Collaborative Learning & Teaching today to find ideas for your school or classroom.  

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