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Multiple Languages, Multiple Considerations: An Example from Oklahoma

Written by Jacob McCleland for NPR’s Oklahoma-based station (KGOU), this news article discusses the complications that arise when a community is unable to communicate. Titled “How Does A Town With 37 Languages Prepare For Emergencies,” the article introduces us to the Soe family, a family originally from Myanmar and members of the Karen ethnic group.

According to the article, the Soe family “fled persecution in their home country and spent a decade in a refugee camp in Thailand,” only to find that there was “little work in the camp, food was scarce and the water was dirty.” The family came to the United States for more opportunity, first arriving in Connecticut before settling in Oklahoma:

“The family had never experienced weather extremes like those in Oklahoma’s panhandle. Winters bring single digit temperatures and the risk of blizzards, while summers are hot and dry. Wildfires are risk when it’s dry. Springtime is tornado season.”

The Soe family lives in a mobile home. Given the intensity of Oklahoma’s weather, they often have to travel to their local church for safety. But how can they know when there is a weather emergency when they are unable to understand announcements on the radio or the TV?

Members of the Soe family rely on their local Lutheran pastor, Mark Wescoatt, to let them know of any emergencies. Wescoatt “helps Karen and other newcomers with immigration paperwork and drives them to medical appointments. He also sends messages on social media to young Karen if a bad storm is brewing or a wildfire is approaching,” and in this way, “clergy members fill a big role in welcoming new immigrants and refugees to Guymon.”

With 37 languages spoken in its public-school district, including Spanish, Amharic and Tigrinya, from Ethiopia and Eritrea, various languages spoken in Myanmar, and at least seven indigenous Guatemalan languages, students “represent at least seven different African countries and six countries from Asia.”

So, when the Myanmarese refugees arrived in Guymon, Oklahoma right before a blizzard hit, they did not know that school had been cancelled. These students “waited at the bus stop in 30 mile per hour wind with the wind chill…close to 20 below for the bus to show up,” according to the article. To this point, teachers often find themselves ill-prepared for these refugee students who “scared of authority figures and warning siren tests,” and suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome which can often interrupt their learning.

While the community is working on providing translation support in terms of pamphlets and announcements, it still has to work in this area. In the meantime, families such as the Soe family look toward their church community to help them navigate a foreign linguistic landscape.


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TWIN-CS advances the Catholic tradition of academic excellence by empowering Catholic schools to systematically transform from a monolingual to multilingual educational model in the service of vibrant culturally diverse populations.

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