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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bilingual Distance Learning That Works: Needed Now

podcast / downloadable audio file

We are ignoring and/or imposing ineffective distance education strategies for our bilingual and non-English speaking populations. Right now, we have an urgent need to provide the kind of education and training that will benefit bilingual and non-English speaking populations in the United States, and we need to do it as quickly and effectively as possible in order to develop human potential, communities, and economies across the spectrum of socio-economic and demographic groups, professions, and vocations.

There are more than 35 million Spanish-speakers in the United States. This is a conservative figure, because there are no ways to accurately record the actual number of Spanish speakers, and by some accounts, that number increases by as many as 1,000 people per day. The USA has the fifth-largest population of Spanish speakers in the world.

Let’s put the USA Spanish-speaking population into perspective by examining the populations of Spanish-speaking nations:

Chile * 16 million
Peru * 28 million
Venezuela * 20 million
Mexico * 107 million
Guatemala * 12 million
Argentina * 36 million
(The World Fact Book, 2007 )

What happens when Spanish-speakers resettle in the United States? One of the first challenges is survival, which usually means depending on family members for support. Strong family ties and a willingness to work together to support family members have been tied to the success of individuals who come to the United States. Commitment to the extended family does not come without a price, however. It is often difficult for individuals to find time to take English lessons. Formal schooling and education may be sacrificed or delayed in order to work outside the home and earn money for the extended family. Many Spanish-speaking new arrivals to the United States are nothing short of phenomenal. Not only do they work to save money for their immediate family, they also tend to send money home to relatives who have stayed behind.

Education comes with a high price tag and great sacrifice. Although nine years of education are free and compulsory in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, students are under tremendous pressure to discontinue their studies in order to earn money.

Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries have long utilized distance education in order to provide education to remote regions. Technology utilized has ranged from basic book-based correspondence to television and Internet-based programs. Students are often organized in community groups so that they have the opportunity to meet with a local tutor or facilitator.

Bilingual programs have been developed and are supported in many regions of Mexico and Central America, where indigenous languages are still alive and well. Spanish is considered the gateway language, the language of commerce. When Spanish-speakers arrive in the United States, they often know two languages: Spanish and an indigenous language.

The realities of education should demonstrate to English-speakers that Spanish-speaking newcomers are adept at learning languages, familiar with the concept of distance education, and eager to learn. However, educational initiatives simply will not work if cultural pressures and realities are not taken into consideration.

Distance education for Spanish-speakers must accommodate the following realities:

**Technology – Internet cafes are common throughout the Spanish-speaking world and individuals are comfortable with communicating via e-mail; also downloading images, music, etc. But – time and access are definitely limited. It is best to have instructional content and activities developed for off-line access.

**Language – the best bridge is to offer courses in Spanish and also in English. Each course should have, at the very least, a glossary of Spanish-English terms to encourage the bridge.

**Training and Practical Application - the pressure to support one’s extended family makes vocational and technical training more attractive than liberal arts. That said, it is important to keep in mind that without solid foundations in basic skills (writing, reading comprehension, English as a Second Language, math), vocational training is not likely to be as successful as it could be.

**Reading and Writing – because of the pressure to discontinue studies, many students may need extra support in reading and writing courses. Developmental reading, writing, and math should form the foundation of all courses, even technical or vocational training.

**Situated Learning – Making lessons relevant and immediately useful to individuals is vital. It’s important to include items that are of public service and which help advance the community as a whole. For example, students studying vocational and technical topics may benefit from safety tips that are provided in an accessible manner.

Saving a life with bilingual training: A Possibility
Do you forget your training the moment you step outside the classroom? Chances are, you did not pay much attention to the content even as it was being presented if you were sitting in a classroom and were watching an interminable Powerpoint and listening to the professor read directly from the slides.

Receiving training or information while in the workplace, or on the way to work, makes more sense. Imagine tuning into a radio station or turning on your mp3 player and listening to safety tips as you go to the construction site.

For example, here’s an OSHA-based text on the four most common construction site safety risks:
Podcast in Anglo-inflected Spanish (it's Susan reading and discussing the OSHA standards in Spanish) .. click here

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