By Alan Mills
Like their colleagues across the UK, South Wales teachers need to communicate and support new students when they first arrive in the UK. The new arrivals often have very limited or no English language skills. This often leaves local authorities and schools having to use the translation services that can cost as much as £20 an hour, for a minimum of three hours.
However, because Cardiff schools have signed up with the Talking Tutor online translation service from EMAS UK, staff can communicate with almost any new student and their family as soon as they step through the door. They can type in questions in English and the on-screen avatar asks them in any of the 24 languages supported. Teachers can talk to learners, learners to their friends, and it's moving to mobile phones too.
EMAS UK is a UK-based company that aims to support teachers to teach and children to learn, whatever their home language happens to be. It was created because teachers and local authority advisors asked them to help with resources for non-English speaking children that were arriving in their schools. The service had to be simple and logical, have a large number of resources, be in as many languages as possible and be able to be accessed in seconds.
They created the Digital Resource Library. This has resources, in around 200 languages, some of which have more than others, a simple-to-use website log-in that leads to downloads of constantly expanding PDF resources within seconds. A whole primary school gets 12 months unlimited access for £195.
Talking Tutor developed in response to requests from teachers
EMAS UK wanted to be able to support teachers and pupils even further and so the company created Talking Tutor which is now generating extremely positive feedback. Talking Tutor was developed because teachers had asked if there was a technology solution that would allow them to speak to newly arrived non-English speaking pupils in their own languages.
The tutor that resulted could handle conversation in 14 languages, and it has proved successful for communication with both parents and pupils. It means that parents of new arrivals can be asked direct questions for information such as age, address etc. It also means that any teacher can talk directly to a new pupil in his or her home language. This could be a revolution in welcoming new children into the classroom. But the team at EMAS UK has done more. Teachers and school staff wanted more languages, so more have been developed giving 24 languages in total.
Schools also wanted to be able to communicate properly, holding two-way conversations with parents and pupils, so they needed the ability for parents and pupils to be able to talk back. This was the start of Two Can Talk, a two-way communication system that speaks in any two chosen languages, allowing communication to be developed into relationship building to offer real help to some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
EMAS UK now has the first online talking communicator that works between different languages. No software to load, no network issues, instant availability any time anywhere there is Internet connectivity. Users can simply access the website and start using the communication tools.
It is important that schools are aware it is not a translation tool but a communication aid. Some words and sentences do not translate exactly, but it works at sentence level and contextual level to give the most appropriate sentence in the language of the user. And it's a dramatic start to a service which, because it is online, can be continuously upgraded so that users always have the best, most up-to-date version.
The avatar speaks the sentence with the written text alongside
Talking Tutor's Two Can Talk is as simple as typing. Just type in the text you want to say, choose a language to communicate in and press the 'Say It' button. The avatar then speaks the sentence in the chosen language (there’s also written text alongside). This supports learning by encouraging the link between written language and pronunciation. It is an ideal way to improve language skills by using the computer to model vocabulary by practising saying what is on screen.
Two Can Talk can be used to speak between any of the 24 languages; the input language can be changed to allow language use between other language speakers. This helps develop the personalised learning agenda and helps the school to promote inclusive teaching regardless of language.
Using Two Can Talk is as simple as using Instant Messenger (Two Can Text, supporting 75 languages, is on its way too) but with the confidence of having a language specialist at your side. Schools are reporting that they are using Talking Tutor to communicate with parents on the telephone, and by letter, as well as in person.
One school in Wales recently reported that it had a pupil with health problems and they needed the parents to collect the child quickly. They typed the text into Talking Tutor, held the phone to the speaker and pressed the ‘Say It’ button. The result was that although they didn’t understand the parent’s response, they did arrive within minutes and took the child to hospital. Previously they would have had to find a person, usually a translator that could speak the language, wait for them to arrive and then start the process. Talking Tutor made communication simple, effective and instantly accessible while averting a possible emergency and saving the school money.
Recognition for EMAS UK has been swift and the service has already been shortlisted for three sections in the Education Awards (to be announced at The Education Show in March) and chief executive John Foxwell is delighted. "We are a child-centred learning company that believes every child should achieve their potential and new pupils to the UK deserve every opportunity to the highest quality of education possible. They are, after all, the new world learners, not limited by language or location; they are translingual learners. We aim to support the 850,000 current 'UK English as an additional language' pupils to achieve their potential, and the 50,000-plus non-English speaking pupils and new arrivals on their first days at school.
"Ours is the only online system that is supported by resources in 200 languages and allows two-way conversation; supporting communication in real time. It can be used for first contact with parents at the reception area of the school, with the teacher in class and at parents evening, and target-setting meetings with parents and community leaders. Talking Tutor promotes community cohesion and helps develop the personalised learning agenda that every child needs.
'EMAS UK helps schools support new pupils from their first days at their new school through to them leaving school and finding work. Not only supporting first language contact but allowing schools to use standardised assessment with their new pupils, the first time that a non-English speaking pupil can be assessed on the same criteria as their peers without the need for additional resources or expensive tests. For secondary pupils it also allows them to undertake exams without having a translator or needing additional time, giving them a real opportunity to achieve their personal potential in a new environment."
John Foxwell has also been encouraged by interest from abroad, particularly at BETT 2010, the educational technology show held in London in January. Talking Tutor and Two Can Talk are currently being used by schools in Thailand and Sweden, with other countries such as Norway and Poland negotiating to use the online tools in their schools. In Europe there is a global migrant population in excess of 41.9 million people, while the UK has an estimated 6 million limited-English speakers with more than 30 million foreign nationals visiting the UK on an annual basis.
EMAS UK has priced Talking Tutor and Two Can Talk, to make them affordable to all schools, at £395. When you consider that a translator may cost a minimum of £20 an hour, plus expenses and travel time, this once-a-year payment appears excellent value.
Helping all children to communicate, to achieve their own personal potential, is important. This impressive piece of online software certainly goes a long way in the right direction, and its potential is staggering. It’s also tremendous fun and has lots of possibilities that schools will love to explore.