Back to school: How bilingual signs help classroom communication

Fall is upon us and that means school is back in session. But more than ever, schools need bilingual signs to accommodate a growing number of students for whom English is not the primary language. According to a 2012 U.S. Census Bureau study, almost 37 million people aged 5 or older speak Spanish. Roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population spoke a language other than English at the time of the survey. It's becoming increasingly important for schools to recognize this fact.

Bilingual signs help foreign-language students acclimate to a new school, communicate with teachers and other students, and succeed academically. But there's more to it than that: The right signs can also help foster a bilingual student body that can learn and understand in new ways. Here are three areas in which bilingual signs can improve communication in schools:

"The right signs can help foster a bilingual student body."

1. Among students
Interaction among students is arguably the most important part of education, especially for elementary through high school students. But if students don't speak the same language and have no means of understanding one another, communication and interaction will be limited. Bilingual signs facilitate that socialization by allowing students to reference English translations as necessary. English-speaking students who are exposed to another language will ultimately gain at least some degree of fluency that will help them in school and in life.

2. Students and teachers
Teachers who don't speak the same language as some of their students will have a hard time reaching those kids. If a student can't understand the lesson, how can he or she be expected to pass the class? Bilingual signs allow instructors to use various reference points in the classroom to demonstrate different lessons and ideas. Just as students might eventually learn more Spanish with the help of Spanish signs, teachers can also pick up a second language and incorporate it in their classes. 

3. Students and the facility
In a building covered with English-specific signs and identification, students with limited English language skills can feel intimidated, lost, out of place and even unwelcome. Those are emotions that run counter to what schools are about: learning, community and sanctuary. By including a second language in those signs, administrators can provide a better environment for those whose primary language is something other than English. Plus, students should learn basic facilities by more than just their English name to better prepare them for a an increasingly diverse and multilingual nation.

It's also important to note that bilingual signs might play a crucial role during emergencies. In the case of a fire, gas leak or some other event that requires immediate evacuation, students need to be able to read and react to signs as quickly as possible. Any time a student spends trying to translate from English into his or her native language is time wasted.

As school gets back in session, keep an eye out for bilingual signs and take note of how they might be enhanced. The more channels of communication available to teachers and students, the more successful the education process will be.