8 Things to consider about communicating with Spanish-speaking families



Communicating more effectively with Spanish-speaking families

By Andrés Cordero, Jr., TG Senior Marketing Communications Specialist

As a Latino, a former first-generation college student, and now a volunteer outreach ambassador for a nonprofit, I've been on both sides of the college exploration process. I can appreciate the obstacles faced by students who want to go to college but who may be challenged by language, by a lack of family legacy in college attendance, and by the sometimes intimidating process of finding ways to finance a higher education.

And let's be honest — it isn't exactly easy to get to college even if you aren't hindered by these factors. Figuring out the path to college can be difficult, even in the best of circumstances. So when I can help families and students find their way, I enjoy doing it.
If you, or others on your team, are planning an outreach event or activity and you anticipate interacting with Spanish-speaking families, here are a few things to consider:
  1. Recognize that college exploration can be a family affair

    • Because of factors that include the level of financial commitment, relevance to a student's future, and the possibility that the student will soon be separated from the family unit, many Latino families will explore the college-going experience together. Parents/guardians and siblings are likely to join the student as they attend events to learn more about college. Grandparents or aunts or uncles may participate as well. Because of this, you will want to be prepared to share information based on the perspectives and needs of others besides the student. For the student and his or her family, the event may be a shared experience, so be sensitive to these informational needs.
  2. Be courteous, open, and friendly — your body language will signal your approachability

    • Learning something new can be intimidating to anyone, so pay close attention to the way you dress, to your body gestures, to your movements, and to your facial expressions. You will want to be approachable, without making people uncomfortable; casual glances and reassuring smiles are often subtle ways of inviting conversation. Some students and their families may look confused or overwhelmed; a simple "how can I help?" and an appreciative smile may be enough to get the conversation going. When it comes to clothing, business casual or casual wear is often best; avoid dressing in formal business wear that can imply you are selling something or are "too important" to be interrupted.
  3. Be respectful of and acknowledge adults and parents

    • Many Latino cultures emphasize respect for older generations. Even if it's clear that the student will be the one "conducting business," be sure to recognize or acknowledge the student's elders. A simple greeting will do, but neglecting this acknowledgement can be seen as a signal of disrespect, making it more difficult to establish rapport and trust. If you are speaking Spanish with the family, some Spanish-speaking parents may eagerly jump in once they realize you can answer their questions as well.
  4. Be an active listener

    • When you invite a question or a conversation, stay with it through its conclusion as much as possible. Generally, students' questions are the easiest to answer; parents and other elders may pose more complex and thoughtful questions. Avoid staring directly at the questioner; it is considered disrespectful and confrontational. Instead, glance slightly away, but shake your head back and forth, and give verbal cues that you are listening. Repeating what you are being asked is a good way to demonstrate that you understand, and gives others nearby a second opportunity to listen to the question before you provide the answer.
  5. Demonstrate you relate to their situation or circumstances

    • Families in many cultures can feel that they are alone in not understanding a process or knowing the answer to a specific question. For families of first-generation students, this sense is often even more prevalent. To help families be more open to your responses, listen to their situations, as these often set the stage for their questions. Acknowledge their circumstances, restate their question, and, when possible, share similar examples. This "storytelling" approach to answering questions helps many remember what was said.
  6. Ask about a family's needs before you begin

    • Even if you determine that a family needs information in Spanish, avoid making assumptions about their situation. Spanish-speaking families are as diverse in fluency, level of acculturation, socioeconomic status, and other factors as English-speaking families. You may be dealing with a family that has recently arrived from another country and is unfamiliar with the U.S. educational system, or you may be dealing with a third- or fourth-generation Spanish-speaking family that simply has not assimilated fully to U.S. culture. Spanish speakers can come from many different countries, and so their choice of terms, tone, pitch, and annunciation may differ dramatically. They may have been highly educated in their country of origin, or they may be struggling to build a new life in the United States.
  7. Know that many Spanish speakers appreciate your efforts — and they aren't expecting perfection

    • As with other segments of the population, professionals and volunteers who help students and families understand the college-going process have varying levels of Spanish-language proficiency. Some may understand Spanish, but may not be comfortable speaking it. Others find that they can speak it, but are uncomfortable writing in the language. Often, what is most important, and most valued, is the effort. Just as with English, Spanish is often spoken in a manner that is not strictly correct, and there is considerable license to modify language in whatever way is necessary to make it easiest to understand. Except in rare circumstances, most Spanish speakers are forgiving when it comes to minor errors. Their goal in these situations isn't to grade your fluency; it is simply to gather whatever information they can to make the important decisions related to attending college.

As you prepare for the busy season of educating students and families about going to college, recognize that your efforts do make a difference. These simple tips can help you better support those who are reaching out to Spanish speakers. Ultimately, any effort you and your institution can make in communicating this information will be appreciated by those seeking to build a better future for themselves and for those they love.

This article sponsored by TG HigherEDGE


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