When two students from Puerto Rico who spoke little English enrolled this year in the rural Chaplin (Conn.) Elementary School, district officials were forced to hastily devise an English as a Second Language program to support their teachers. While ESL programs are common in larger city school systems, families with limited English proficiency are moving to communities where such options have not been available.
There are more than three million ESL students nationwide, and the situation is complicated further since non-English speaking students represent a range of languages. For example, Mitchell Grayson, the ESL coordinator in Cromwell, Conn., says district students speak 27 different languages "alphabetically from Bengali to Urdu." Similarly, the state of Washington recently identified more than 180 languages spoken in their schools. It is clearly impossible for administrators to hire bilingual staff members and prepare programs to support all of these groups, but this is where online resources can help.
For example, AlltheWeb (www.alltheweb.com) allows users to search for Web pages in 50 different languages so ESL students may be introduced to online research in their native languages. Similarly, Google (www.google.com) offers its search interface in more than 80 languages, and Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) is available in 24 languages.
Growing up in a bilingual home in New York where I was the only one who spoke Norwegian in my elementary school, I remember being asked to translate for newly enrolled Scandinavian students whose parents were assigned to the United Nations. It is amazing to me that anyone can now use sites such as FreeTranslation.com (www.freetranslation.com) to do the same work without knowing the language.
Powerful translation tools are also available through Google and Babel Fish (babelfish.altavista.com), making it easy to translate phrases, sentences and even pages of text to and from languages including French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Schools have used these methods to communicate with families of exchange students. The tools can also translate Web sites and prepare Web-based school materials in other languages.
The translation technologies are not perfect, however. For example, Carol Goodrow, an educator who hosts KidsRunning.com (www.kidsrunning.com), often receives postings from a German student who uses an online translator. "And then I interpret the literal translations that he sends me," she says.
The national standards from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (www.actfl.org) require that students understand languages in cultural contexts, and the Web offers easy access to authentic resources from countries throughout the world. For example, students can read daily online newspapers from most countries through NewspaperLinks (www.newspaperlinks.com), gain travel perspectives at sites such as the World Travel Guide (www.worldtravelguide.net), and learn detailed information about world regions through the Library of Congress Portals to the World (www.loc.gov/rr/international/portals.html).
These tools will also uncover specialized cultural resources including AskAsia (www.askasia.org), Mexico for Kids (www.elbalero.gob.mx), Study Guides and Strategies (www.iss.stthomas.edu/studyguides), and identify exemplary school language sites such as K-12 Foreign Language at Fairfax County Public Schools (www.fcps.k12.va.us/DIS/OHSICS/forlang), and Les Classes de Monsieur Long (www.laconia.k12.nh.us/plong). It is also valuable to put students and teachers in contact with peers across the globe to practice language skills. A useful directory is the International Registry of Schools at Web66 (web66.coled.umn.edu). You may not have people in your district who can translate languages such as Pashto from Afghanistan or Cebuano from the Philippines, but those resources are available online.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, email@example.com, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.