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Linguistic Barriers in Teaching Cross-Cultural

We become not a melting pot, but a beautiful mosaic: Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, and different dreams 
- Carter

Since 1990, the immigrant and refugee population in the United States has increased dramatically. Immigrants arrive here as high-skilled workers for tech companies, and refugees flee violence and persecution in their home countries.  As a Parent Educator and as a liaison, I provide immigrant families with knowledge of the school system and academic programs and support the adaptation of immigrant families into a new and alien culture.

Immigrants and refugees struggle to acculturate and adjust to American life due to differences in language and culture. To make my point clear, I would like to share with you an example of Moses who is a student at our school.

 Misunderstanding turns into Miscommunication 

Moses, a refugee from the Ivory Coast, hoped to enroll into the after-school program. This required the completion of an application form.  The form included questions about his ethnicity, date of birth, sex (gender), and Social Security number.  Moses brought the form home and asked his mother to complete it.  When she read the questions, Moses’ mother got very upset and told him he could not continue in the program.  She did not want her child to be a part of anything involving "sex!"  Moses’ teacher explained to him sex on the form was a term requesting parents to identify their children as boys or girls.  Moses lacked the word to explain the misunderstanding.  His mother said, "This is a bad place, no sex."   Moses explained his problem to the teacher and asked for help.  This is one of the many problems that teachers and administrators encounter at school, and, immigrant parents face in their struggle to adapt to a new country. 

Immigrants arrive here either as bilingual or multilingual speakers.  Even those with knowledge of the English language struggle with minor differences as they speak British English.  Words like napkin (tissue) and full stop (period), creates a glitch for smooth conversations to happen.  British English differs from American English with its pronunciation, vocabulary, spellings, dialects, and pragmatics (usage of language for different purposes) of the language.  Refugees, on the other hand, struggle with an inability to understand the educational process. Their limited English skills and the lack of education creates unique problems between them and their children.

 Developing School-Parent Partnerships

Parent education programs assist immigrants to learn to speak English, understand the educational system, and gain a better understanding of their children’s school.  It also provides tools to apply knowledge effectively, problem-solve, and communicate in society.  A significant benefit of parent participation in educational programs involves the ability of parents to learn from each other and value different viewpoints and cultural expectations.

Schools must creatively work with immigrant parents to mediate between two cultural contexts.  School-parent partnerships will lighten the burden for parents and increase engagement, collaboration, and goodwill between parents and the school system.  By harmoniously working together, parents and schools can create a synergy that benefits everyone.


Dr. Poornima D'Souza works with students and parents in the Sioux Falls school district as a school-parent liaison. She also teaches graduate courses in Northwestern's online Master of Education program. If you're interested in learning more about this area, Dr. D'Souza will share more strategies for facilitating cross-cultural school-parent partnerships at the 2018 Northwestern Leadership Series.

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society.  It is a bulwark against poverty.  Literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.  - Kofi Annan