Open to interpretation

Students provide a service as translators at North Westminster school, where their home languages are highly valued, says Carolyn O'Grady

One of the first things you notice when you enter North Westminster community school on parents' evening is a poster in many languages advertising the availability of interpreters. Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Somali, Kurdish, Albanian, and Serbo Croat are some of the languages that can be interpreted. It is a necessary service. Around 70 languages are spoken at the school, a 2,000-pupil inner-city comprehensive. Often the parents cannot speak English. Upstairs in one of the science rooms, teacher Neil Melhuish is telling an Albanian-speaking mother what an excellent, enthusiastic student her daughter is. Enkeleda Rexhepaj, a student from Kosova, interprets. The mother asks a question about her daughter's progress in English. Enkeleda translates and Neil Melhuish goes on to suggest the daughter must work even harder at her English and "must not be afraid to ask me if she does not understand. She has a tendency to rush ahead without thinking. She must always ask". Again Enkeleda interprets.

It is the stuff of a fairly normal parents' evening, though things are not always as straightforward as this. Elsewhere, an Arabic-speaking student is interpreting a difficult conversation in which a student, who is accompanying her mother, and a teacher are close to arguing over who is the telling truth. The teacher is worried the girl is not concentrating on her lessons or doing her homework; the girl blames the teacher.

Many schools where different languages are spoken find they have to use students as interpreters. It can be too expensive to hire professionals and often interpreters are not available for certain languages. The situation is not ideal, but it is a reality that North Westminster community school is imaginatively trying to turn into a positive one for parents, teachers and students. The school is attempting to give students the skills to do the job well and responsibly, help them develop their English and other languages, and give them an insight into a possible career as interpreters. Some years ago, a project was set up at the school to teach students aged between 16 and 18 to interpret in a limited way in educational contexts such as parents' evenings. From September, aspects of the project will be integrated into the curriculum as part of the school's curriculum enrichment programme run by the universities of Liverpool and Lancaster. Successful students will receive a certificate recognised by the Universities and Colleges Admissions System.

The brainchild of Sagarika Bhattacharjee, who teaches English as an additional language, the scheme is the first of its kind to run successfully for any length of time in a United Kingdom school. Developed as an after-school club, most of the students who attend are young people who have arrived fairly recently in the UK and have picked up good English quickly; others were born in this country but are fluent in another language. "I come across students who hide their home language. They are almost ashamed of it," says Ms Bhattacharjee. "They need to have their language valued, andby doing this we can maintain or boost their self-esteem, pride and motivation. Also, by valuing your home language you make possible the transfer of skills and concepts and students can more easily develop another language."

The course also, she emphasises, encourages self-reliance and responsibility. Student interpreters have to get in touch by phone with parents to inform them of parents' evenings and to offer their services, for example. Twenty-one students are involved in the project this year, aged around 17 and 18. All of them have interpreted before in home, school and elsewhere. Avni Byqmeti from Kosova has helped in a hospital, interpreting for many other Albanian speakers there. He and the others enjoyed the evenings. "It is not just the certificate. We see it as a service, a way of helping people out, and it is good to mix with other cultures at the group sessions," he says.

Jeremy Pratt, director of the lower school, emphasises that the school is careful not to use student interpreters for sensitive issues such as exclusion, medical problems, special needs or difficult family matters. "If sensitive issues need to be discussed we would use interpreters from an agency," he says.

For the curriculum enhancement certificate, which emphasises group project skills, students will not be assessed on their actual interpretation skills. Instead, they undertake a research project on the need for interpreters, an investigation of the role of the interpreter, design brochures, or interpret communications from the school. Sagarika Bhattacharjee also intends to continue to offer students an internal assessment. At the end of each course, students take part in a mock parents' evening, which includes a role play. Parents are usually played by language specialists from the school's own language department or Westminster's language service, and teachers are usually played by actual teachers in the school. There is a test on some of the ethical issues involved in interpreting. If students do well, they receive a certificate. How do you teach interpreting as a skill? Ms Bhattacharjee's classes are partly theoretical: they look at the ethics and practice of interpreting, and discuss issues such as what happens if a translation does not immediately spring to mind and the importance of confidentiality and impartiality. The classes also look at the vocabulary likely to emerge in school situations. Words such as detention, modules and bullying may not easily translate into other languages and have to be thought about by the students. Often it is possible to see whether a student is translating or speaking fluently and well, even if the language is not understood and students who speak the same language can comment on each other's performance as they practise translations.

The sessions are lively with an emphasis on respecting each other's language and culture. "You are learning another language and you are doing it very well and to a very good purpose," advises Sagarika Bhattacharjee. "But remember your own original voice."

More information: Sagarika Bhattacharjee, North Westminster community school, North Wharf Road, London W2 1LF. Tel: 020 7641 8473

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