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Helping Bilingual Students Access Your Collection: Linguistically Diverse Audiences

At one point in the movie “Life is Beautiful,” I began to believe I could speak Italian. I became unaware that I was reading subtitles. In fact, the action on the screen was so visually expressive, my dependence on the spoken and written text was negligible. This experience is often on my mind as I develop programs and train docents for audiences that include, more and more frequently, visitors with limited English proficiency (LEP).

Americans have had a love/hate relationship with bilingual education ever since English became the language of commerce and of the new government. All other languages became “second class.” New immigrants often wanted their children to learn English and suppressed their own language and culture in order to speed the process of assimilation.

The current pendulum swing recognizes the value of bilingualism in a diverse society and a shrinking world. Additionally, the sheer number of non-English speakers in American schools has increased dramatically and demands a response. The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (http:// reports a current K-12 enrollment in the United States of 46,139,064 students, an increase of 13.6% over the last decade. During the decade, however, they report a school enrollment (K-12) of 4,146,997 LEP students, an increase of 104.3%. In many communities, whether their bilingual visitors number in the thousands or merely a handful, educators in zoos, museums, historic houses, and other such institutions are increasingly being asked to provide tours and educational programming for LEP students.

For many years, non-English speaking students were expected to enter the mainstream through an approach called submersion. This “time-honored” technique simply meant throwing non-English speaking students into classes conducted in English and allowing them to sink or swim on their own. This, of course, is not a program and was, in fact, declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 1974 in Lau V. Nichols. Nevertheless, it is, by default, the approach used by many museums and similar venues that have not actively addressed the challenge of LEP visitors.

School systems today generally approach education for LEP students with variations of two distinct philosophies, ESL or bilingual education.

In English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, non-English speakers are taught English much as any foreign language is taught. Students in these classes require additional help in content areas. Sheltered English is an approach used by a number of school systems. Content area classes are taught by ESL teachers who segregate LEP students from the English speaking students, but use English as the language for content instruction. When ESL students visit a museum, it is usually as part of a “content” class where they often suffer the same fate as the submersion students — little or no support for the visit.

Bilingual education approaches the challenges of the LEP population in a significantly different way than ESL. The difference, of course, is obvious in the name —bilingual. Students continue to speak their first language while learning English. Instruction in both language and content is given in two languages.

At the simplest level, bilingual instruction employs translators, people who speak the students’ language but who may or may not be professional teachers. In the classroom, they listen to the teacher and translate her words for the LEP students. When such students visit a museum, their translator usually accompanies them and translates the docent’s words. Too often, LEP students whose only support comes from translators learn to “tune out” the teacher (or decent) and wait for the translation.

Transitional bilingual classes are widely used in the U.S. Teachers who are fluent in both languages work to transition their students from their native language to English as quickly as possible, usually within two to three years. Developmental or maintenance bilingual programs are currendy emphasized in many U.S. schools. In these programs, sometimes called “late exit,” students stay in the program until they become literate in both their native language as well as English.

Making the museum accessible is the goal of any program, and museums approach the challenge of making their institution accessible to LEP visitors in a variety of ways. Some offer label copy in multiple languages, or the provide printed gallery guides in several languages. A few offer tours in languages other then English. While these efforts are laudable, they do not address the issue of visits from children in ESL or bilingual school programs. In this case, part of the mission of the museum becomes helping these students learn or refine their understanding and use of English. Many larger museums, or museums with a significant non- English speaking constituency, offer educational programming that combines elements of both ESL and bilingual education. Some are blessed with bilingual docents who have received the museum’s content training, but who also can speak to and understand LEP visitors in both English and their primary language. A few museums work with ESL teachers to devise programs with controlled vocabulary and appropriate hands-on experiences to enrich the difficult experience of learning English. Programs such as these, however, are not yet available in most museums. In cases where the number of LEP visitors is small, bilingual docents scarce, or the number of “second” languages very diverse, museums must find other solutions.

As with any good tour, communication with the scheduling teacher is an important first step. When a teacher calls to arrange a class visit, the scheduler should ascertain if the class is ESL, bilingual, or if LEP students are mainstreamed among a group of native English-speaking children. With ESL and bilingual classes, it will be helpful to know if translators will accompany the children, if any of the children are still monolingual in their native language, and whether or not the classroom teacher prefers the visit to be conducted all in English or in a combination of both languages (if the museum offers that option).

Prior to the visit, the scheduling teacher should be provided with information and activities that can be accomplished within the classroom to help prepare the children for their visit. While this is a good idea with any group of students, it is essential for helping LEP students understand the content of a proposed tour.

Other suggestions are useful in making a visit meaningful for all students.

Greet the children in both languages with a welcoming word appropriate to the age and culture.

Pronounce the children’s names correctly, even if you must ask more than once how to pronounce them. Don’t Anglicize their names or give them “other” names.

Be open to connections between your collection and their native culture. Often they will point these out to you if you have made it clear that you welcome their participation in the tour.

Allow plenty of “think” time after asking a question. Remember, the children may need extra time in understanding your English (different, perhaps, to that of their teacher), considering their answer, forming their mental answer in English, and getting courage enough to speak.

Keep your language simple and use visuals and supporting cues. Use lots of gestures, but be careful to avoid those gestures that might be misunderstood. Be aware of gesture “no-no’s” in their home culture.

Work to remove or diminish your regional accent, and avoid speaking too fast and using idioms and figures of speech in your presentation.
In activities, ask the teacher to help you pair students whose English is minimal with those students who have a better grasp of the language. Allow time for discussion within and among the paired groups before asking for whole group responses.

When identifying artifacts or specimens by name, ask children for the corresponding term in their primary language. Stress that the name of the object isn’t as important as other things we can learn about it.

Finally, strive to create a tour that employs a “third” language, the one that enables me to “understand” Italian in “Life is Beautiful,” appreciate “La Traviata” without supertitles, and laugh at the antics of the early silent movie comedians. Keep the exposition of your tour to a minimum. In a variety of ways, create a tour that illustrates, demonstrates, and lets children participate in the theme. “Show, not tell” is important with all visitors. It’s the key to providing access for LEP visitors.

Most Common Language Groups for LEP Students

The U.S. Department of Education reported the following most common language groups represented in U.S. schools during the 1991-92 school year.

Spanish 72.9% of all LEP students   Arabic 0.9
Vietnamese 3.9    Portuguese 0.7
Hmong 1.8   Japanese 0.6
Cantonese 1.7  Armenian 0.5
Cambodian 1.6  Chinese 0.5
Korean 1.6  (unspecified dialect)
Laotian 1.3
Navajo 1.3  Mandarin 0.5
Tagalog 1.1  Farsi 0.4
Russian 0.9  Hindi 0.3
Creole 0.9  Polish 0.3

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Helping Bilingual Students Access Your Collection: Linguistically Diverse Audiences,” The Docent Educator 10.1 (Autumn 2000): 13-15.

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