Bridging communities: The work to decode languages of lesser diffusion

Many roads lead to a career in the language industry. 

Take Melissa Meyer, for example. The CEO of Barbier, Inc., Meyer’s connection to multilingualism reaches back even before her birth, when her Guatemalan mother met her American Marine father. Now, as a leader of a language services provider, she’s providing a route into interpretation services for indigenous-language speakers. One of Barbier’s centers of operation, Guatemala is a hub for indigenous Mesoamerican languages — which largely fall into the category called languages of lesser diffusion (LLDs). And when it comes to serving speakers of LLDs, it’s easier said than done.

“There’s been a huge migration pattern, not from Mexico, but from Guatemala going up to the United States,” Meyer said. “So we have more and more of a need for translation and interpreting services for those languages. However, there’s a finite number of speakers that can speak both English and those languages.” 

And when no interpreters are available who can speak all the languages necessary to complete the work, the only option is to tackle the project in a less straightforward way. 

“In our case in particular, most of the time we have to use a Spanish relay,” said Meyer. “Only now we’re realizing people who can speak English and a Mayan indigenous language, but most of the time it’s been English to Spanish, Spanish to indigenous language, and then back and forth through the relay.”  

There’s a solution to that dilemma: trilingual interpreters who can handle English, Spanish, and an LLD. And thanks to cooperation between companies Barbier and Boostlingo, that’s exactly what’s happening. With a little work, Meyer is hoping these languages of lesser diffusion might become a bit less obscure thanks to highly specialized interpreters. 

Issues concerning LLDs aren’t restricted to Mesoamerican languages. America is a nation of many tongues — according to Translators Without Borders, between 350 and 430 languages are spoken in the country. Inevitably, many of these languages are spoken by relatively small clusters of people. 

Oregon, for instance, has become a home for many populations of Micronesian Islanders. According to Oregon officials, approximately 10,000 individuals of a Micronesian Islander background reside within the state. They bring with them languages like Chuukese, Pohnpeian, and Marshallese, but also unique health conditions resulting from a history of nuclear weapon testing in the Marshall Islands. According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, the ethnic groups were also disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, experiencing infection rates up to 12 times higher than that of white Oregonians. It’s therefore imperative that these individuals have the language services they need to ensure their healthcare and other needs are met. 

It’s just one reason why properly serving communities speaking LLDs should concern everyone, Meyer said. When the health and welfare of communities are at stake, it’s up to public and private organizations to come up with solutions. 

“I think it’s really important that more language-service companies look for these kinds of opportunities, because there’s more people that could be doing this. I’ll just say it: More companies could be doing this,” said Meyer. “And I really hope and wish that people think to themselves, ‘Where can I do this with my expertise, and who can I best serve?’ Because it can’t just be one company, right?” 

But it’s possible Barbier, in its partnership with Boostlingo, is setting up a new model for addressing the issue. 

For such a potentially revelatory new method of handling LLDs, the collaboration came about fairly organically. According to Meyer, she is a longtime friend and colleague of Dieter Runge, Boostlingo Vice President of Global Strategy and International Growth. Having become acquainted through the Association of Language Companies, they were already well-positioned to work together. 

“We had a really good rapport, and previous to that, we were considering joining Boostlingo as a client, but we just weren’t there yet,” Meyer said. “So we were kind of hanging out on the sidelines at that time, watching different people do different things. But Dieter and I started speaking over the last 15 months about what we’re doing as a company, and we realized that our paths were merging in an area that a lot of people are not covering, which is the Mayan indigenous languages.” 

While such languages certainly qualify under the LLD descriptor, there’s still a real need to serve the communities that speak them. By combining forces through their individual specialties, Boostlingo and Barbier landed upon an innovative solution to that exact problem. 

Boostlingo is a technology platform designed to facilitate live remote interpretation. Using the platform, interpreters can use video remote interpretation and over-the-phone interpretation. Barbier, meanwhile, utilizes an in-house training program to educate and certify translators and interpreters at the highest standard. Working together, they had all the tools they needed to cover the demand for Mayan-language translation and interpretation services. 

The proof of that relationship’s effectiveness manifested when Barbier and Boostlingo worked together on a solution for a particularly large client. This client required language partners who could satisfy a huge amount of demand — often hundreds of files and thousands upon thousands of words per week. Through that relationship, they wound up helping a client open a Spanish-English call center offering medical and legal translation and interpretation 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. 

“It just really was this serendipitous moment where we just all merged together for this client through Dieter,” said Meyer. 

“We think it’s just this great symbiotic relationship, and we’re super excited to be working with them to provide more language access for those LLDs,” added Caroline Remer, Vice President of Language Access for Boostlingo. 

That’s when the need to support indigenous languages became truly apparent — a need that Barbier had been working toward all along. With more than 20 indigenous Mayan languages in Guatemala, Barbier put together a pilot program bringing in bilingual speakers of Spanish and an indigenous language. The program goal was to train these speakers in English using the Barbier method, producing trilingual interpreters and translators who adhered to best practices and could step in to handle a variety of translation and interpretation demands. 

Since then, at the request of Boostlingo, Barbier took the initiative to hire trilingual interpreters across a variety of language combinations. They have a Spanish-Arabic-English interpreter, a Portuguese-Spanish-English interpreter, and a Mandarin-Spanish-English interpreter, just to name a few. 

“Coming into contact with Barbier was so, so valuable for both sides,” said Remer. “These kind of interpreter shortages are industry-wide, and being able to promote more access to these indigenous languages is great. Barbier is doing the legwork, going in and getting these professionals qualified and trained. It’s going to serve so many different communities in the world, and that’s amazing.” 

It’s not just vital and necessary work for the communities who depend upon these services. According to Meyer, it’s also incredibly satisfying. There’s a real joy in training up interpreters who can fill the gaps that exist in global communities. 

“Teaching is one of the most rewarding jobs out there,” Meyer said. “It’s very creative work.”     

And part of that satisfaction comes from the knowledge that this kind of valuable skill building will serve trainee interpreters and translators for the rest of their lives. 

“We look at it as a hand up, not a hand out, situation with our language training,” Meyer said. “And that’s what we strongly believe in, because we want to empower these communities. We already know that they’re great people. They just need an opportunity.”  

That sense of learning and discovery is a two-way street. Even as Barbier trains its interpreters and translators, the company officials find their appreciation of global languages’ histories and mysteries deepening. At Meyer’s community in Spain, for example, it’s common to hear Gallego. And while it has similarities to Spanish, it’s actually a language from the Roman period based on Latin and influenced by the Gauls. Likewise, Basque is another language of Spain and France with its own unique evolution. 

Then there are languages like Euskara, another Spain and France-based language with no known origin. It’s a puzzle that continues to baffle linguists and specialists, Barbier’s experts included. For that matter, Barbier is even identifying languages they didn’t know existed. And that sense of excitement and discovery is what drives their work.

“It’s fascinating to me to see the migration patterns and evolution of these communities,” Meyer said. 

What’s more, it’s the kind of work that can be applied to just about every language group out there — not just countries with a higher density of Mayan indigenous languages. Whether it be East Asia, India, sub-Saharan Africa, or any other region with a mix of major languages and LLDs, the Barbier-Boostlingo model can be modified to support them.  

In a world as dynamic and evolving as language work, there’s little room for certainty. But if Meyer and Remer are confident of one thing, it’s that serving LLDs will always require a human touch.

“I remember when I first joined Boostlingo, they asked me, ‘What would you say if we told you that AI was going to take over the interpretation industry within 15 years?’” Remer said. “And I think I used the word empathy. That is to say, there has to be a human element to interpretation, so I don’t see it going away anytime soon. Machines are never going to be able to do what humans can do in exactly the same way.” 

That empathy, more than anything, is what drives the work serving LLDs. Because ultimately, it’s about ensuring that communities aren’t left in the dark, bereft of the services and communication tools they need to thrive. It’s about preserving the complex, vibrant, fascinating sociolinguistic world humankind has inherited. And it’s about giving individuals the skills they need to live and flourish within it. 

“We’re trying to empower people to be able to speak for themselves and have a voice,” Remer said. “So what Barbier is doing in Guatemala and will continue to do all over the world is incredibly valuable work.”