Bilingual Students Bridge Gap For Peers

Teachers match newly arrived children who don't speak English with classmates who can translate.

When Wudmaer Alexandre, 7, hit a student to get his attention, it wasn’t the teacher who intervened but fellow first-grader Eddine Luma.

Wudmaer arrived at Forest Park Elementary School in Boynton Beach from Haiti six weeks ago. Although he learned to read English at school in Haiti, he can’t speak it.

So teaching him the rules of the classroom has been a challenge for his teacher, Laureen Potts.

Potts relies on Wudmaer’s Haitian classmates to translate for her.

She can have her pick: Seven of her 17 pupils speak Haitian Creole as their first language.

Teachers at Forest Park, where 31 percent of students speak Creole and 9 percent speak Spanish as their native tongue, have developed an informal system of matching newly arrived students who don’t speak English with bilingual students who can translate for them.

With new students arriving regularly from foreign countries, teachers say their students’ help is essential for relaying rules and assignments to the newcomers.

“It’s like if you were deaf. You would need someone to sign for you,” fifth-grade teacher Nina Lant said. “They’re your bridge into the world.”

Lant recently paired Haitian native Nelsy Nelson with Stephanie Chery, who arrived from Haiti two weeks ago.

The two sit next to each other in class, and Stephanie relies on Nelsy for learning everything from what Lant is saying to when to leave for lunch.

Students usually are eager for the translation assignments. They are accustomed to translating for recently arrived family members and typically are proud to be given such an adult job, said Jean Downs, Forest Park’s reading coordinator.

It hasn’t always been this way.

When Downs taught at Forest Park 15 years ago, she said students were embarrassed to show they spoke another language.

“There was a stigma,” Principal Ethelene Powell said. “The students used to be so shy and withdrawn.”

But now that they make up a third of the school’s population, Haitian children at Forest Park have become a confident bunch. One school district official even says their translation skills may be a sign of advanced intelligence.

Students of Haitian and Hispanic descent can show gifted qualities by switching from one language to another in midsentence while keeping the message intact, said Jaime Castellano, a specialist for the school district’s programs that serve the poor.

Those who take care of younger siblings and have a lot of chores at home also are potentially gifted because their horizons have been broadened by the added responsibilities, he said.

Potts said translation skills need to be looked at as one of many facets of giftedness.

“It’s definitely a talent,” she said. “But it’s also a necessity.”

Lois Solomon can be reached at lsolomon@sun-sentinel. com or 561-243-6536.

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