Monday, November 12, 2012

Puse? That Sounds Dirty: Overcoming Language Barriers

Over the last week, since the presidential election, much has been made about the increasing role that the Latino and Latina populations play in deciding elections. Both democratic and  republican pundits have acknowledged the effects that the new demographics of the country have on politics. There are currently 40 million individuals in the U.S. who use the Spanish language primarily. This demographic shift affects the educational system and will therefore affect each of us as sexuality educators. Language barriers may become more common within classrooms as more students who speak Spanish are in classrooms with  teachers who speak English. The Bilingual Education Bill of 1968 requires that students be presented equal educational opportunities regardless of language. Sexuality educators within public institutions have to follow this bill, which means many of us will encounter a language barrier at some point. Language barriers can lead to misunderstandings between teacher and students. Language issues when teaching sexuality are unique because much of sexual language is slang. Therefore, the teacher must be aware of regular vocabulary and the slang within a foreign language. Learning and using slang terms within sexuality may help overcome language barriers and make the teacher relatable to students,but many slang terms are inappropriate and may be used by students to be offensive. Using slang in the classroom has led to legal issues for some teachers. Difficulties also arise when a teacher is surrounded by a classroom in which the students speak a language that the teacher is unable to understand but the students do understand. This makes the classroom difficult to control because students are able to speak without any fear of the teacher knowing. This can be frustrating for the teacher and disrupt class. Language barriers also affect interaction with parents, which can be a detriment to parental involvement.  There are solutions and resources that can be used to overcome language barriers. Each and every teacher learning Spanish is not an option moving forward and there will always be language barriers between some students and teachers.

-What as an educator can you do to overcome the language barriers you may face?
- What are your opinions regarding the use of slang terms in the classroom?


  1. I think that I remember enough spanish that I would be able to pick up on 25% of the conversations they had. I guess I could always brush up on it a bit more. I wonder how realistic it would be to bring a translator in to fill the gaps.

  2. I have way too many stories to count about my experience with language barriers in the classroom. It is a difficult hurdle to get over and it will be a hurdle we are always trying to conquer with the expanding of sexuality slang and vocabular, especially among teens. I do think it is important to have resource people that speak the language (at least of the majority) of students in the classroom to help you identify slang being used, what context, and why. I had one student who kept calling me "Sharmota" every day, numerous times a day. She was one of the sweetest students I had ever met. I didn't question what the word meant for a while, because she kept using it as she volunteered to help me around the classroom. "I can help you set up, Sharmota." Me? I was thinking, "Sweet! I got a helper!" One of the other teachers that spoke Arabic heard her call me that and said that word means "b*tch". So, the next time I had an honest conversation with her about what that word means to her, what that word means to me, and the use of it for a teacher/student relationship. That was the turning point in which I knew that resource people within a different language are key to learning and dealing with language barriers.

  3. I have a hard time with both of your questions, and sadly, I do not have an answer. I am lucky that bilingualism happens to be in the two major languages being spoken in the US. I still have a hard time with slang. I think at some point, we have to let it slide, and use it as a teachable moment. I get a lot, A LOT of calls where the patient wants to use a term correctly, but just cannot think of it. A prime example is the term ejaculate. I get come and "nutted" a lot. Often times, they whisper the word and embarrassed but feel incredibly relieved when I say, "oh you mean ejaculate?" They are so reassured and excited that they now have the correct terminology. How far to take this in the definitely got me on that one...

  4. I, personally, think that using slang terms in the classroom is inappropriate. Whenever I've been in a situation where I've used the correct medical term for something and my students didn't understand it, I've just explained it in other words until one student would shout out, "OHHH. You mean [insert slang here]!" Then I would just nod and move on. I've also been known to stop students while they were using slang in the classroom (to either one another or to me) and taught them the appropriate word. I had one student who would always roll her eyes at me because I'd make her correct her use of the N word to "man" (because that's how she was using it) every.single.time. It got to the point that if she was using it in a conversation with someone else, she'd stop and look at me (even if I hadn't heard her or asked to correct herself) and say, "I mean, I'm sorry, Fabello, MAN."

    I'm with Blanca. Use it as a teachable moment and move on from it.

  5. Such an interesting topic! I'm not really sure what to do about the students using another language in the classroom. I've had that kind of experience where students are speaking in Spanish to each other and I half understand what they're saying, but I just brush it off because it usually has nothing to do with the class and try to refocus everyone to stop having side conversations.

    When it comes to slang I usually tell the teens right at the beginning that they can use terms they know for things, i.e. "nutted" instead of ejaculated and "backshots" instead of having sex doggie style or from behind, and then we're going to use medical terminology from then on. Usually I have to continue to correct them but sometimes, just like Melissa said, they will stop themselves before they use the slang and at least try to remember the medical term. I'm not sure if all the new terms stick, but I am proud to say that by the time I finish any of my curriculum groups all of the students know the difference between a vagina and a vulva and that makes me happy. All I can say is that I am grateful for urban dictionary and students who are usually more than happy to explain new terms to me :)

  6. As a teacher, I have taken numerous classes to help me be a better teacher for students with English as a Second Language (ESL). Those classes have given me resources and yet being in the classroom as the teacher is completely different. It is extremely intimidating for me to not know what is being said and frustrating for the student as well. There are several different websites that can be used as translating resources.

    The webpage in google, will help with text, website, and document translation. So if you know ahead of time, you can translate your documents for any of your students. It can also be used as a tool to help with any vocabulary and slang in the classroom.

    As far as the slang issue, I do not allow my students to use it in the classroom. I remind my students that this is a classroom and not the streets. I provide the correct terminology and respectfully ask my students to use the same terminology. I inform the students of places where correct terminology would be more appropriate than slang to address medical issues, education, and questions. Students feel really smart when using these terms and it helps to boost their confidence as well. When slang is used and I don't know the reference (1st time I heard blue waffle was a doozy), I will ask for the students to "teach the teacher" and that thrills them!

    It is going to be interesting to see what happens in the next 20 years with language and education...

  7. I definitely love this topic of discussion, because I must admit - language barriers are usually pretty far from my mind when preparing to educate a group of people. That's not something I'm too proud of, because I know it's a reality and potential issue I will inevitably face in my career, and I definitely plan to continue working on making this consideration a priority.

    To answer your questions, ironically, I have been regaining an interest in learning spanish and speaking fluently like I could somewhat in high school after 4 years of taking spanish. I think it's a beautiful language, and being bi-lingual in this country within any profession is never going to be a negative hiring quality either. Most importantly, it will allow me to provide my students with equal opportunities to learn regardless of language barriers, which you outlined in your post as part of The Bilingual Education Bill of 1968!

    I am completely on board with Blanca that it's most effective to address the use of slang in your education setting as a teachable moment. I feel like I'm contradicting myself if I tell others (especially parents) to utilize medical terminology for body parts, and then I turn right around and use slang myself just to create a connection with my students. I like to think I'm pretty cool - so hopefully I can skate by on that!! LOL

    By the way, totally LOVED the links you provided to the yahoo article and The Teaching Tolerance website - which is an amazing resource for us all to check out!! Thanks Cary for sharing those websites!

  8. I too love where this conversation is going. Thanks, Cary, for getting us started. When I am teaching in a classroom where some of the students are conversing with each other in Spanish, since I don't speak Spanish, I file that for later on. This happened last night, actually. I was teaching a class to LGBT high school kids and one of the kids who was Latino was struggling to find the right words to say. I let him know he could just say it in Spanish because I knew that someone else would be able to translate and help us out. He actually wanted to find the right English words to say and ended up asking it in English. But I knew that if he had asked it in Spanish, even though I wasn't fluent, I could rely on some of the other students in the class who were bilingual and give them an opportunity to, in some ways, teach the class.

    Shanna, I looked up 'blue waffle' because you know I am one of urban dictionary's biggest fans. And it turns out to be a hoax. Now there's a great teachable moment. And by the way, the images are absolutely gross, which is why I decided not to post one here.

  9. On the question of allowing or not allowing slang, I think you might want to vary it depending on the setting. If I'm in a school classroom, probably not, because of the points Melissa and Shanna brought up about professionalism and giving them new vocabulary. If I'm going into a community to do a program, especially a short-term program, I might want to be more flexible... give them the medically appropriate terminology, but allow them to use whichever words they felt most comfortable with. Whether I'd adjust my own language would depend on the situation, but I can imagine some situations in which I would -- if I only have a short time to build rapport and credibility, and I suspect using medical terminology will distance me from them.