Bridging the Language Gap

Though translating everything can get tedious, it does come with its advantages.

By Maria Alvarado, Savannah College of Arts and Design


It’s easy to grow used to mom and dad filling out paperwork, reading the instructions on how to do everything and all that adult stuff.

After all, parents do a lot for their kids that most times go unnoticed. But, things can change a lot when the heads of the family can’t understand the main language of the country they are visiting.

The first time I had to translate from English to Spanish for my family, we were lost somewhere in New Jersey. That summer my family and I had traveled to visit relatives in the Garden State, but we had to drive back to Virginia in order to take the plane back home. I was around fourteen at the time and was the only member of my family who could actually communicate in English. So, as we tried to figure out the road to Virginia, I ended up translating the directions of the fifty or so people we met on the road.

How Having Non-English-Speaking Parents Affects the College Experience

Image via WGNB

If you are bilingual, you might have experienced the tiredness that comes after spending all after noon switching back from one language to the other. It is likely that someone reading this article might have, at one point, sat in between two people who didn’t speak the same language and attempted to help them have a conversation by translating every line they said. Now, imagine that the two people are your college and your parents.

College applications and their deadlines already sound like a nightmare: the amount of papers that need to be filled out, the essay questions that have to be answered and the endless questions that emerge as the process moves forward. Normally, people have college advisors and their parents look over their college applications, helping them make decisions or changes that could help them get into their dream college. But, what happens when your parents can’t help you with the stressful college applications because they don’t understand English?

As an international student, I am constantly reminded by other people how amazing it is that I can fluently speak a language that is not native to my country. Of course, I know that not everybody can speak, read or understand English or other languages. However, I admit that the more time I spend studying in a college with almost a 50 percent international student body, the harder it is to understand why older generations chose to not learn a second language.

Nowadays, everyone wants to travel to a different country. People want to learn about foreign cultures, history or simply explore new cities and take nice pictures. Even college students look forward to visiting Europe, South or Central America during their breaks. As a result, many people take the initiative to learn the language of the places they want to visit. But this isn’t something that was always normal.

The amount of international students and English speakers in the world is so big, that not knowing English can be viewed as a grave mistake. Still, my parents would argue that back in the day, they had no need to learn English. Without the internet to show people what they were missing by sticking to the same town, people “back in the day” didn’t have the strong desire to travel that is common in today’s world.

When I first came to study in America, I knew that my college experience was going to be somewhat different. My parents had warned me that they would be able to help me only if I translated all the letters and documents with the information they needed to know. Because of this, I ended up reading the “Parents’ Section” of many schools’ websites and overview books.

By the beginning of freshman year, I knew information about the way college admissions worked that few students ever know.

Every time a school email appears on my parents’ inbox or they happen to see a post about the university in Facebook, I get a message with the link and a “Translate this for me, please” or a “What does this say?” And, even though translating small articles for my parents doesn’t really bother me, I always wonder how different things would be if they were more familiar with English.

On the other hand, I like to think that there are small perks in having parents that don’t speak English, especially when it comes to college.

The first time that my father asked me to translate a letter from my school in the U.S. to Spanish, the information in the message was not exactly good news. It was a letter from my math teacher, saying that my performance in the course wasn’t as stellar as he had expected. I didn’t want to lie to him, because I was afraid that he would eventually find out what the letter said. So, instead, I simply downplayed the severity with which the letter was written, making it sound “friendlier.” Did I deliver the message? Yes. Did I save myself from a good scolding? You bet.

Throughout the years, I’ve had the pleasure of making friends from all around the globe. This is how I discovered that my parents are not the only ones who struggle to understand a second language.

During the evacuations for Hurricane Matthew, a bunch of worried parents were trying to figure out what colleges were going to do with international students. There was a lot of confusion at the shelter, because parents were confused as to how severe the storm was going to be, how far away the city was where the school was evacuating and if it was possible to buy a last-minute plane ticket for their children to come back.

Due to the fact that not all these parents speak English and therefore couldn’t possibly ask these questions themselves, they sent their children for the answers. As a result, the shelter was filled with a constant mix of Chinese, Spanish, German, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, English and other languages.

I have noticed that the most notorious impact that having parents that don’t speak English is that it forces people to keep in touch. When students are away at school, they tend to get absorbed in the world of their college campuses and usually forget to call home. A month or two can go by without college students feeling the need to ring their mom or dad. However, this is something that cannot happen with parents that don’t speak English, as they will eventually find something they need to translate and call you.

Parents can grow frustrated when they have no way to communicate and know exactly what’s going on. When it comes to the language breach between English and other tongues, one can’t really judge how difficult it would be for someone to overcome it or adjust to it. Learning English could take from months to years. Who knows, maybe there’s a way to help them learn English faster. Meanwhile, I would say that the best thing to do is trying to understand and help them a little.

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