Bridging the Language Gap


This post was written by a CMLE Guest Blogger: Connie Laing is a Patron Services Librarian with Great River Regional Library.

A few weeks ago at the Long Prairie Public Library, I was part of a unique collaboration of teachers, students and librarians. We had a common goal of sharing information about using Great River Regional Library services with a class of English language learners, but we spoke three different languages. How did this work, you ask? Here are the highlights:

  • The environment was noisy and chaotic.
  • Many voices were talking at once.
  • My agenda did not go according to plan.
  • I did not cover all the material I brought.
  • It was about the most inspiring class I have been a part of!

Background: The Library Services Coordinator in Long Prairie, Nancy Potter, has developed a relationship with the local instructor of Adult Basic Education classes in her area, which includes this class of English Language Learners. Amy, the instructor, is determined to get her students out of the classroom and into the community, and the first place she thought of to visit was the local library! After she contacted Nancy Potter in Long Prairie, Nancy contacted me for reinforcement, since one of the duties of the three Patron Services Librarians at GRRL is to assist at any of our 32 branches with class visits and information presentations. I was charged with creating a presentation on GRRL services for the adult ELL students.

I wasn’t sure how to prepare for the class, since I had been forewarned the students were not yet fluent in English and the teacher was not fluent in Spanish.  Most students spoke Spanish as their first language, and one student spoke Chinese as her first language. Was I up to the challenge? Yes and no.

First of all, my expectations were a little off the mark. I prepared a brief outline, and had hoped to follow it in order, with the students following along on the laptops I brought. I’ve learned that in teaching with technology, one must “meet the students where they are at.” This is tricky when one does not know where they are at, especially when they are not all at the same place. But Amy helped out a great deal, interrupting to explain some concepts in more simple terms, and sometimes asking one student to translate for others. We didn’t cover all the material I thought we would, but we covered what was relevant to their lives, which was even better – the students learned how the public library can help them in their education, their children’s education, their recreational use and lifelong learning. In fact, a few weeks after the class, Amy reported to Nancy that one of the students had begun to take her daughter to her local library every week, and before the class, she didn’t even know her town had a public library. Mission accomplished!

The success of this class can be credited to the dedication of everyone present – teachers and students alike. The students’ drive and determination to learn were impressive, and their teacher’s sheer commitment to her students was obvious. The noise and chaos were due to everyone talking to one another as they explained concepts and shared experiences. Despite our language gap, we all learned from one another. I learned that I need to speak slower, and that it is okay to throw the outline out the window in favor of covering what is relevant to the audience at hand.  I am grateful I had the opportunity to play a role in this shining example of successful community collaboration.

Connie Laing is a Patron Services Librarian with Great River Regional Library. She is based at the St. Cloud location, but travels to GRRL’s 32 branches to provide support for programs, class visits, presentations and individual patron help through a “Book a Librarian” service. Visit to learn more about Great River Regional Library services.