A school where 60 per cent of pupils speak English as a second language has invested in electronic translators for every child so they can communicate with teachers.
Manor Park Primary in Aston, Birmingham, which has 384 pupils of 32 different ethnicities, is the first school in Britain to provide translators for all of its children and to make the tools an integral part of every lesson.
The technology enables teachers to type messages to pupils which are then translated into the 19 native tongues of children with no English.
Another 11 languages are spoken by pupils who have some English.
And with figures showing that one in six primary pupils speaks a different language at home–double the number ten years ago–the technology could soon become a permanent feature in many more schools.
The ‘Talking Tutor’ can verbally translate English into 25 languages including Polish, Urdu, Pakistani and Chinese. A further 200 languages can be translated on-screen.
Teachers type a message into a computer and the virtual tutor then reads the message out to the pupil in their native tongue. The pupil types a response which is read to the teacher by the tutor.
The software claims to be 95 per cent accurate as it uses ‘ contextchecking technology’ which gives the meaning of the message rather than a verbatim translation.
Headmaster Jason Smith said the software had transformed his school and given staff the opportunity to communicate with children.
‘We have a very diverse school–at any one time there are upwards of 30 different languages,’ he added.
‘We have always found this the biggest barrier to integrating a child into the school.’
The school pays £700 a year for the software, which comes with onteacher-screen ‘avatars’, or characters, based on the background of the pupils.
These include an Asian man, a white Eastern European and a black African man. Plans are also in the pipeline to include a Chinese woman and a burka-wearing Muslim.
The software, developed by Lincoln-based EMAS UK, cost more than £2.5million to produce.
Dawn Holt, a teacher at the school, admitted she had struggled in the past to communicate with pupils who had recently arrived in Britain.
She said: ‘You could never have a who could speak all those languages, so I think this technology is probably here to stay.’
But critics say that giving pupils computerised translators could be ‘damaging and dangerous’.
Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: ‘Surely it would be better to give all these foreign-speaking youngsters an intensive course in English.’
There were mixed reactions to the translator last night from parents of Manor Park pupils.
One father of two, who did not want to be named, said: ‘My boys say teachers are spending more time using the computer than teaching.
‘They came home last week and said they felt pushed aside. The teachers are neglecting the English kids.’
But another parent, Carol Barnes, 45, was in favour. She said: ‘It’s another way they can teach the kids and it’s also a way of getting non-English-speaking pupils to communicate with English speakers.’
Latest figures from the Department for Education show that 905,610 children do not speak English as their first language.
This figure has risen by 42,750 in a year, and accounts for 16 per cent of pupils in primary schools and 11.6 per cent in secondaries.
SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Some of the languages at Manor Park:
Arabic (Middle East and Asia)