The Effects of Language Barriers on a Classroom

Updated November 21, 2016

The United States has approximately 40 million Spanish speakers, as well as non-English speaking immigrants from countries around the world. The high numbers of non-English speaking children have had a significant impact on American schools as teachers and students alike struggle to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers in the classroom. Language barriers can have a significant negative impact on a student's academic success.

Parent Involvement

According to the Michigan Department of Public Education, the lack of parental involvement is one of the biggest problems faced by schools. Children whose parents are actively involved in their education have higher grades, fewer behaviour problems and increased graduation rates. Non-English-speaking parents may not receive written or verbal information in their native language, so they are often left out of the loop regarding their child's progress. This makes it difficult for parents to play an active role in their child's education.

Language Barriers and Literacy

Students only need to learn to read once, according to the Montreal Centre for Literacy; in other words, once a child understands the principles of written language, he can transfer his knowledge to a second language. However, many children and adults arrive in the English-speaking world with little or no formal education and cannot read or write in their primary language. These learners have an especially difficult time becoming literate in a second language. The International Reading Association indicates that between 30 and 40 per cent of second-language learners read below grade level by the time they reach high school.

Special Learning Needs

When working with English language learners, it is sometimes difficult for teachers to determine if a child is having difficulty in school because of a language barrier or a learning disability. Some children are labelled as learning disabled and unnecessarily placed in resource classrooms, while other students with genuine learning disabilities are not recognised or diagnosed. Either situation can be emotionally damaging to an English language learner.

Nonverbal Communication

Language barriers extend beyond spoken language. Students who come from other cultures often demonstrate behaviours that are expected within their own society but are unacceptable in English-speaking societies. For example, Native American children are taught that making eye contact with teachers and other authority figures is a sign of disrespect. However, children are expected to make eye contact in English-speaking classrooms to show that they are paying attention to the teacher. Cultural differences in body language can lead to serious misunderstandings in the classroom.

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