Documentary highlights language barriers

ROCHESTER — More than 33 million people in the United States are from other countries, and 18 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t speak English at home.

Those were some of the facts — and the repercussions for immigrant families and the schools, human services providers and health providers who work with them — highlighted during a screening of the documentary "Childhood in Translation" March 26 at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education.

A panel of community leaders who work with local immigrant and refugee populations also addressed some of the issues raised by the film. Robert Winn’s documentary tells the story of families from Mexico, Laos and Vietnam and how they often use their children as translators to navigate the U.S. education, social-services and health-care systems.

The film and panelists also discussed the legal and social ramifications for educators and service providers when language is a barrier. One case in the film showed how a father’s foot was amputated when he signed the consent forms without understanding them during the time his son, who had been translating, had left the hospital for a short while.

Such pressure on the children can ultimately cause psychological problems, stated experts in the film, which was shown as part of a Warner series exploring the immigrant experience in America. And these children often lose their childhood because they are pushed into the adult realm of filling out forms, making appointments and speaking to teachers, according to the film.

Jay Piper, principal of Rochester’s School No. 15, also known as The Children’s School, can attest to the challenges faced by the school’s immigrant families — which represent more than 35 languages — and the staff trying to meet their needs not just academically but holistically, he said. The school also provides an adult literacy program to help the parents and try to get them involved as much as possible in their child’s education.

"Part of our challenge is making sure all the children feel embraced," Piper said. "Because if you don’t feel comfortable, it’s even harder to learn a language."

But, Piper added, dealing with a refugee population also raises concerns about privacy and cultural sensitivity. For example, when a child comes to the school nurse, how does the school contact the family using classroom translators without "stepping on the toes of confidentiality," he said.

Whenever possible, the school contacts such organizations as Catholic Family Center to help work with the families by assisting with translating or navigating cultural differences, he noted.

"Sometimes, that works and sometimes it doesn’t," Piper said. "Resources are limited for everyone."

Staff often see children translating for their parents when the family visits a health provider, noted Elisa DeJesus, vice president of family services for Ibero-American Action League. Using a child as translator may cause complications because a child often is not familiar with the medical vocabulary needed to avoid miscommunication, she added.

Dr. Margaret Colpoys said that she has seen situations at Rochester General Hospital where a patient comes into the emergency room, speaks no English and is given instructions in English. When they return to see a doctor, they have no idea what they were told or what medications they were prescribed, she said.

Rochester General Hospital staff rely on a telephone interpreter service, which makes a medical translator available fairly quickly, Colpoys said, noting that the phones used to call the service often are referred to as "the blue phones."

"I feel everyone should have them," she said of the service. "Firemen, policemen, everyone in the public sector should have them."

Ibero created a medical translation program to be available to health agencies, she said. But the translators are not being used as often as would be beneficial because of a lack of resources as Piper noted, DeJesus added.

Colpoys said part of the problem is that health insurance companies do not reimburse health providers for translation services. Also, if a 10-minute visit takes longer because a doctor had to wait for a translator, the doctor still can only charge for the 10 minutes even if the visit takes half an hour, Colpoys added.

"We support everybody learning English," added DeJesus. "You are here in the United States. But in the meantime, (communities) have to have services available so people can move from point a to point b. … And it is so important for agencies in a community to have staff that reflects the community they serve."

While learning English is important for children, immigrant children should be allowed to stay in bilingual classrooms longer, as she did when she was in elementary school, said Ericka López, an English as a second language teacher at Rochester International Academy.

"There isn’t good bilingual education now," she said. "I received a true biliterate education. And because of my education, I was able to (speak) both languages well."

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the UR’s film series sponsors, the Warner School’s Department of Teaching Curriculum and Change and Project CELLS: Western New York Collaboration for English Language Learners, and available scholarships, visit

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