Talking with a multilingual parent community in real-time with Microsoft Translator

Imagine being able to engage in a real-time conversation with people who speak many different languages.

I am Eric Ferguson, Director of Instructional Technology with the Bellevue School District (BSD), located in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle. I am writing to share part of our ongoing story about integrating technology in our schools, and using Microsoft Translator to communicate with and engage our parent and family communities who speak multiple languages.

BSD serves a racially and linguistically diverse community, so it is incredibly important for principals to communicate effectively with their students’ parents and families to keep them informed about what is happening in their school. We know that when we actively engage our parent community, it results in better learning outcomes for our students. We have been strategically integrating technology throughout our district by providing secondary school students with a laptop to help prepare them for the digital world in which they live, and to prepare them for the future.

At the beginning of the 2017 school year, Chinook Middle School embarked on a 1:1 learning initiative where they provided close to 1,000 students with Lenovo Yoga laptops. Chinook’s principal, Russell White, has been preparing his staff, students, and parent community over the course of the last year to get them ready for this change.

Mr. White, who is in his second year as principal of Chinook, has a monthly Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) meeting, in which he speaks to and informs parents and families about what is happening within the school. Earlier in the year, he realized he was not fully meeting the needs of his diverse parent community and began to hold additional meetings for parents and families for which English is a second language. He called it “Multi-Lingual Parent Coffee.”

In the past, Mr. White hired translators for these meetings. These translators who would sit with parents in specific language groups. In preparation for the parent meeting about the 1:1 laptop project, Mr. White asked me to present at the two meetings. I used a PowerPoint presentation that I had developed for PTSA meetings at other schools that were integrating 1:1 technology.

I shared the idea of using a new tool, called Microsoft Translator, which translates the language being spoken into multiple different languages instantly. Mr. White expressed immediate excitement about the possibilities Microsoft Translator would provide to his parent community.

He shared that he typically has a Spanish, Korean and Mandarin translator at every meeting, and knows that he while cannot support every language that is spoken at his school, he can focus on the three most widely spoken languages. I told Mr. White that if we use the Microsoft Translator, we’d be able to accommodate over 60 different languages.

I started the meeting just like usual, except for one thing: I had a QR code located in the bottom right-hand corner of the first slide. I encouraged parents to take out their phones, download the Microsoft Translator app, and scan the code to join our group. Parents typed in their names and preferred language to join the conversation.  As I shared previously, the three language groups – Spanish, Korean and Mandarin – all had a bilingual translator to help them get set up. Once the family members were signed in, I started to present just like I would have for an English-speaking group.

Since this was the first time I had tried this with so many people, I asked the translators if what was appearing on their phones was accurately translated from my talk.  All three groups shared that most of what I presented was accurately translated and easy to follow.  I also set up the conversation from my phone, so I could still have the full PowerPoint slides display from the projector, and speak into my phone. As a result, an accurate transcript of the conversation was displayed on my phone.

The meeting did run a little longer than the previous meeting, but everyone was quite excited about “the real-time translation.” An 8th grader’s mother, Maria Cheung, later told me, “When I walked away to the other end of the room, the translator still can catch the speaker. I have bad hearing and I could not hear clearly what the speaker said from the distance, but the translator helped me to catch what I was missing.”

After the meeting, Mr. White asked if he could use Microsoft Translator in future meetings and now plans to use the tool on a more regular basis throughout this 2017-2018 school year.  It’s as easy as downloading an app and creating a new conversation, I explained.

Microsoft Translator is accurate and easy to use as you connect with parents, students, and the community. Though it it will never be a substitute for speaking to people in their own language, it did allow me to speak with multiple languages simultaneously – and that was pretty cool.

Learn more about Microsoft Translator: https://aka.ms/chinook_translatoredu