Student's hands playing with tablet device.

Interview: How tech can break down language barriers in your classroom

Salman Shaheen speaks to Christopher Lim, creator of, a platform that is helping teachers make education accessible in many languages in the face of a global refugee crisis.

In an ever more interconnected world, teachers are increasingly finding themselves leading global classrooms containing multiple languages and cultures. It’s a challenge made all the more pressing by the refugee crisis, with 89.3 million people worldwide forcibly displaced by violence, persecution, and human rights violations. As climate change renders more parts of the world inhospitable to human life, we are likely to see far more people crossing borders to survive. Breaking down language and cultural barriers in the classroom to ensure all students, no matter their background, receive a quality education will prove a more and more time-consuming task for teachers. But there are a range of free tech tools they can turn to that can help them integrate children who speak a multitude of different languages. One of them is and we spoke to creator and CEO Christopher Lim to find out how his platform is assisting teachers and tips for them to get the most out of it. 

Salman Shaheen: Between conflict and the increasing impact of climate change, we are likely to see an increasing number of displaced people. This will have a huge knock-on effect on education. What are the main barriers to helping refugees receive a good education?

Christopher Lim: I was glad that we could ask one of our customers that’s a school district that’s actively welcoming refugees, including from Ukraine and Afghanistan.  They explained that education is a higher order need and it’s really hard to meet that need when lower order needs are not met. For example, food, clothing, safety and security. For displaced peoples and refugees those lower order needs are the ones that are actually hard to come by. And language is a barrier that prevents those needs from being met, from being recognised. So that’s one of the first places that needs to be addressed before you can start thinking about education as a whole. And there is also not only the material side of physical needs like food and shelter, but there’s also the psychological side, there’s a lot of trauma from being uprooted from where you lived, where you dwelled, the relationships that you had and having to be transplanted into a completely foreign place all of a sudden. And so there’s a big need as well, he was saying, for refugee students to feel safe, to feel comfortable so that they can actually learn even though it’s a very unfamiliar environment. I’m paraphrasing his words, but I thought that they were a great starting point to think about those barriers for refugees. We can be maybe a little bit ambitious by trying to think about like actual learning, but if those lower order needs aren’t met yet, it can be very hard for anyone to learn. 

Salman Shaheen: How has been helping refugee students in the US? 

Christopher Lim:, is seeking to create a toolkit for teachers, for administrators, for schools and education systems so that they have everything that they need to make education accessible in many languages. And what does that look like? Practically, right, we’re focused on that language side, which still doesn’t really help with the physical needs directly. It doesn’t really help with the psychological needs directly. But through language, you can bridge that cultural barrier and you can actually help people have a safe space where they can learn. 

So what are those tools that we’re providing for teachers to equip them so that they can actually meet the needs of the refugee students more readily? One of the ones that we released recently, which was in service of the World Education Week that T4 put on is a cloze tool. Cloze is a fancy word for “fill in the blank” and “fill in the blank” is one of the simplest exercises that helps people to learn a new language. And it’s very easy for them to grasp what they’re supposed to do. And it’s very easy to give the students, for example, a video that they can watch and as they’re listening to that video, to test their reading comprehension with sentences where they have words that they need to fill in to learn. It’s also helpful to do it in multiple languages, for language learning to take into the context of what they’re seeing to comprehend what they’re experiencing. 

So these fill in the blank exercises are really simple. And we built a free tool called a Cloze Generator that’s on our website. We can include the link somewhere in the description that anybody, a teacher or not even a teacher, can go in there, plop in a text, and then they can easily just punch out the words that they want to convert into a gap so that students can fill it in. And the tool also makes it easy because it will save those words in the word bank. And if you want to, you can include the word bank and the exercise, or you can exclude it so that the students have to remember everything just from their own memory, but it’s just really simple to paste in the text. Punch out the words and then generate a pdf file, or print a printout or even copy and paste into your own Google Doc, that exercise with the words blanked out. And with the word bank included if you want to. So this is a really simple tool, but it can help teachers to create exercises from anything. You can take a transcript of a YouTube video, you can take a couple of paragraphs from a textbook, you can take some other worksheet or something and just paste in that text and generate that cloze exercise that you can give to students and it’s really easy to grade. 

The answers are very clear and it is easy to give that feedback so that students can learn faster and obviously you can get more sophisticated by punching out more words, you can get more sophisticated by having more complex content that the students have to process. But it’s just such a useful tool across the whole spectrum and it does work multilingually. There are some limitations around using it for languages that don’t use spaces. So for example, Asian languages many times don’t have a space between words, so the tool doesn’t really work for that yet, but for languages that have spaces the Cloze Generator will work, it’s free, it’s online, ready to go. 

So that’s one tool, one example that we’re trying to equip teachers with the tools that they need. Another one is that can be used to live caption and translate your lessons as you’re speaking. And obviously there’s always been that big dream of being able to talk freely off the cuff and have just perfect translation like the Star Trek translator dream. I don’t want to oversell our live captioning and translation service, but for the teachers who do lecture and have a need to provide translation, textual translation for students in real time, and who want to learn the technology, this is a possibility for them. With a good microphone, speaking clearly, they’re able to continue to teach in English and a translation will come out in real time on students’ Chromebooks, tablets and other devices that they’re allowed to use in class and that way they get another layer of accessibility, even if English is not their first language. 

You can also translate documents and slides whether it’s for the students or if it’s for parents or for other people. And it’s really easy to distribute that through So you might be going through your slides in English up on the screen up front, but the student can get the slide in their language in Spanish or in Pashto or some other language on their mobile device, on their Chromebook or something like that and so they can follow along, they can look up to get the English, they can look at their device to get the translated version and that helps them to connect the dots between these two, you know, their language and the language that they’re learning. 

You can also, if you are not doing the live setting, but if you are pre-recording your content or wanted to share a YouTube video, or any of these kinds of video-based content or maybe you want to send a little announcement to parents or something like that. You can use to generate the subtitles for those kinds of videos and to burn in the subtitles so that you can share a video with parents in Spanish over WhatsApp. Or you can even use this tool to help students be able to share from their culture or their language where they record themselves, share the video with you, generate an English subtitle that you can then share with the class or share with other people who don’t speak the student’s language. So that’s a very useful tool for just video content in general, making it localised, making it subtitled in other languages. 

And I think as a final tool, there’s like I said, is an all in one platform, a toolkit for teachers to be able to serve their refugee students better. We do have a video transcription service. So that you can upload videos and get transcripts and you can use that to create the Cloze, the fill in the blank exercises or for other purposes, whatever you wish in the classroom. So that’s a brief overview, but we are constantly looking for new ways we can support teachers. And so we’re open to ideas as well from the community. 

Salman Shaheen: What made you decide to tackle the educational barriers to refugee students? 

Christopher Lim: My parents came to the United States and had to be educated at the university level in a language that wasn’t their first language. And I’ve heard growing up those kinds of challenges that they would face – even like a professor lecturing and speaking so fast that they can’t keep up and coming to the professor during office hours and saying, “can you slow down?” And it’s like, “Well, if I slow down, the whole class is gonna fall asleep.” So, you know, what kind of tools can help with that? 

So, as a whole is on a mission to make every event accessible in any language and content accessible in any language. And what we’re realising is that when it comes to education, there’s so much content that’s locked up because of language, some of the best content in the world is in other languages. And if you want people to be able to access that, you need to provide the tools so that it can be available in the language of every student. 

Practically, you know, with what’s happening in the world, and where we are located based in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a big outreach to welcome immigrants and refugees here. There’s just a greater urgency. These students are here now, they’re entering our countries and our cities and everything now, and they need help now. And so has been a tool that has existed for a while, but as we’re seeing the need, it just made sense to start to adapt what we do to focus these tools so that they can be more useful and helpful in an educational setting. And, you know, being displaced is already really terrible and to also be held back as a result of that is even worse. 

It’s the teacher that makes a huge difference. So any way we can equip them with what they need to have that relationship and to build that possibility, that safe space so that these students can learn and have access in their language. That’s what we are about and what we want to do.

Salman Shaheen: Do you have any tips to help teachers integrating refugees into their classrooms to get the most out of 

Christopher Lim: Well, this is another example where I would want to defer to our [teacher] customers who are really the experts in this. The customer I mentioned earlier came up with some best practices for English language learning teachers. One best practice that they came up with was requiring full-sentence answers as opposed to just a yes or no response. So if you want to test comprehension, you need students to actually communicate more to you than just a yes or a no answer. Another best practice was increasing the frequency of paired or group work. Three was asking students to read and explain instructions. Four is increasing the frequency of asking open-ended questions, being attentive to the ratio of teacher talk time versus student talk time. 

It’s very easy just to kind of nod your head or say no and this is what I would do if I’m travelling to a foreign country where I don’t speak the language – I kind of do the bare minimum – and it sounds like the best practices are meant to draw students out to let them practice more, to communicate more and express what’s actually their comprehension in their mind. 

And this customer also provides cultural awareness and sensitivity training so that teachers better understand the home country of refugees that they are serving and that helps to build that empathy. And they also are using technology, technology like to help bridge the language barrier. 

Salman Shaheen: What other tech tools out there produced by other companies have you seen that you think could be a major help to closing the learning gaps? 

Christopher Lim: I would start answering this question just by sharing what we’ve learned from some of our customers and in addition to, oh they’ve used a device called a PocketTalk, which I think is a dedicated device for translation that you can use maybe like Google Translate but you don’t need a phone. And they mentioned Rosetta Stone for language learning; Khan Academy as a resource that has a multilingual curriculum. 

Much of it is about the teachers and the teachers’ experience and skills and creativity and how they can kind of weave these tools together. One thing we learned when we created the “fill in the blank” generator was that one of the key tools that one educator that we interviewed would use is really repetition. Repetition at different speeds, at different intervals of the content, and in different formats so that students really get exposed to it multiple times in different ways and then you can give them a “fill in the blank” exercise or something like that and kind of evaluate how they’re learning that material and that repetition also helps when you have a diverse classroom of different abilities. 

I do think that another element like we like to say is for learning, is for inclusion and is for fun. And that fun element is another kind of benefit. I know like Kahoot has been exceptionally popular in many classrooms where you can have a quiz and people are putting in their answers on a public display and students are able to form teams and collaborate and answer those questions and compete on a leader board. And I think that products like that help to make learning fun and that’s a huge boost as well. Even if you’re from other culture, if you’re having fun, like, you know, it’s gonna be very motivating and you can connect with people across the cultural barrier through those things that are fun. 

Salman Shaheen: Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Christopher Lim: Can you imagine if our education system in America was truly inclusive and welcoming of people from all these other countries from other languages, people who have gone through such trauma, if they really get embraced here, if they really feel welcome here, like they belong. And that the teachers are supported with everything they need to give students relationship, connection, education, knowledge, learning. That would be a beautiful dream and I hope that together with teachers, with school districts, with companies like us like and our products and stuff, we can take a step closer to that future.