Ensuring appropriate language proficiency

In the July/August 2011 edition of MultiLingual, Elizabeth Colon described the terrifying story of Willie Ramirez, a Florida teenager who was rendered quadriplegic at least in part because hospital staff may have taken his family’s description of the teenager as intoxicado to mean intoxicated, rather than having a headache.

The benefits of using a professional interpreter rather than a family member, particularly in stressful, high-stakes situations, are many. Though it may be difficult for a family member to avoid interpreting for a less fluent brother, sister or mother, avoiding this may certainly be for the best. There is a common misconception that anyone who can speak two languages can function as a translator or an interpreter. However, the Inter-Agency Language Roundtable (ILR), a forum where the federal government discusses language use, including language testing, states unequivocally that “language competence is a prerequisite, but it is not sufficient for successful performance as an interpreter.” According to the ILR, “The only reliable way to gauge how well an individual will perform on any given assignment is to administer tests that assess interpreting skills in a given setting, reflecting real-world tasks and content.” 

A language gap that prevents an organization from successfully meeting the needs of limited English proficiency (LEP) users can be discovered in many ways. Sometimes, it is as simple as a growing recognition that more LEPs are coming through the doors. At other times, it can be codified in legislation. In California, for example, the provisions of SB853 have mandated since January 1, 2009, that all California health plans provide language translation and interpretation services to LEP patients. Colon suggests in her article that a January 2011 move by the Joint Commission addressing the qualifications of medical interpreters has “opened up an opportunity for LSPs to enter into the medical interpreting space.” Similar moves by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters  and Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters look set to have similar effects.

The ever-growing opportunity for LSPs to offer services to the LEP community is not restricted to the medical arena. Common Sense Advisory estimates that the market for outsourced language services was worth $26.3 billion in 2010, and will grow at an estimated annual rate of 13.15%. This demand will be met not only by growing in-house language services, but also by contracting for help from commercial LSPs. It is worthwhile then to consider how employers should go about ensuring that their own staff and the services provided by LSPs are capable of filling any language gap that prevents LEPs from being served. 

Two problems face those who must decide to fill a language gap in their area of work. The first is to determine the size and nature of the language gap. The second is to deploy resources that can effectively fill that gap.


Measuring the gap

Imagine a general store owner who notices that more and more Arabic-speaking customers are coming to the shop. Perhaps hiring an entry-level Arabic-speaking clerk to interact directly with the new clients will meet the need. Contrast this situation with, say, a pharmacy in the same area. The pharmacists who will interact with the LEPs will need to be aware of the complexities and nuances, both linguistic and cultural, of dealing with sick patients who must sometimes take complex medicines in very detailed, specific ways. Could the same Arabic-speaker be relied upon to do both tasks? Imagine now an emergency room in the area. Does it opt to provide staff to interpret for English-speaking doctors and nurses, or is the problem so large and so complex that it will require hiring trained Arabic-speaking medical professionals who can provide care directly in the LEP’s language? What is the language profile of the person needed to meet each of these requirements? All language gaps are not created equal.

In order to map the size of the language gap, an organization must carry out a job analysis, covering all the tasks required of the job-holder. Someone with a limited requirement will need less ability than someone who is required to provide or interpret critical clinical information, including sensitive diagnoses and treatments. Job analysis is a multi-stage process, involving industrial-organizational psychologists working alongside language experts. A team of researchers collects information about the requirement using a variety of tools, including job descriptions, surveys of employees and customers, samples of work, and focus groups. This information is organized and then analyzed to create job descriptions to cover the types of communicative tasks required, the contexts and situations in which they occur, the participants in the exchange, and the range of content involved. The requirements must also consider the degree of accuracy needed and the stakes of the exchanges; some requirements may allow for a garbled but comprehensible message while others may require complete accuracy.

Once a detailed profile of the job requirements is complete, language subject matter experts go to work to determine where each task fits along a criterion-based scale of language proficiency such as that used by The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), or the ILR. The panel will look at the information, listen to and read samples from the workplace, and say whether, in their professional judgment, the speaker at any given proficiency level would be capable of successfully meeting all the requirements of the linguistic task. The data are collected and analyzed by industrial-organizational researchers who will identify the final proficiency levels required by the position. Often, they will listen to samples from the workplace to determine whether the performance of the speaker adequately tackles the required tasks, and place those samples on the scale. 

One example is that of a large, multinational professional services firm with offices in over 150 countries and over 170,000 employees, which regularly hosted interns from its foreign branches in its English-speaking headquarters. Many of those interns, however, proved unable to take full advantage of the internship because their English skills did not allow full participation in the life of the office. Job analysis suggested that speaking scores (on the ACTFL scale) of Intermediate High, and writing scores of Advanced Mid were required to even begin to take part in the exchange, and that in order to benefit fully, speaking skills of Intermediate High and writing scores of Advanced Mid were required. Knowing this, the organization could test candidates before sending them, reducing the drop-out rates and ensuring that those who did go were not precluded from benefiting from the program. 

If doing an effective job analysis can have huge benefits, failing to do it can be costly in a range of different ways. In a purely practical sense, a failure to effectively match resource requirements can be bad for business. LEPs may choose not to use an organization where they are frustrated in their attempts to communicate, or they may not even become aware that the organization exists, because in-language outreach is an important part of serving the needs of LEP populations. Internally, it is wasteful to assign highly skilled language-enabled staff to positions where minimal proficiency is required while those with little or no language ability struggle to engage LEPs using an ad-hoc mixture of shouting slowly and making vague hand signals. During the hiring process, failing to identify minimum proficiency levels, or doing so in a slapdash manner, can lead to the selection of unacceptable candidates or the exclusion of acceptable ones, each of which costs an organization in its own way.

The legal consequences of failing to take job analysis seriously can be costly and immensely damaging. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission clearly states that a decision to hire or not hire based upon language ability must be related to those factors that “materially interfere with the ability to perform job duties.” Without a clear, defensible definition of the language requirements of those job duties, a company cannot show a linkage between language requirements and the job in question, and is thus liable to be charged.


Filling the gap

Of course, establishing the proficiency level required in the position is only part of what needs to be done to ensure that organizations can fill their language gaps appropriately. Once it understands the nature of the language gap, it must determine whether or not a candidate possesses the required language skills. It is not enough to determine that a position requires a Spanish-speaker and designate a position as language-dependent. The organization must also determine exactly how well the person needs to speak Spanish in order to effectively take on the job. Does the job require specialized terminology? Does the job also require English proficiency? Does it require interpretation skills that go beyond mere bilingualism? Assessing language proficiency is a complex task that requires trained testers to place speakers (or readers, or writers) of a language appropriately on a scale of ability. The tests used must be valid and reliable — valid in that it tests language directly related to job performance, and reliable in that the results of the test are consistent over time. One would expect that a candidate who took the same language test twice within a week would achieve the same rating. There are a number of commercial language testing services that can help in assessing the language proficiency of employees or candidates. Given the stakes and complexity of proficiency testing, they may offer a surer way than asking untrained internal staff for their feelings on someone’s language proficiency.

Another way to fill the language gap is to bring in a professional LSP to assist in allowing existing English-speaking staff to effectively reach out to LEPs. Interpreters can be requested from an LSP when companies have advanced knowledge of an upcoming requirement, and over-the-phone interpretation, with on-demand 24/7 availability, offers incredible flexibility and ease of access. But how can you be sure that the language abilities of the individuals provided meet the specific needs of your situation? Telephone interpreters, for example, may hang up after handling a call for a financial institution about retirement funds, pick up the phone again to deal with a medical call, and subsequently be asked to interpret questions and answers about the return policies for packages of frozen food. Many professional interpreters specialize in a specific area of expertise — medical and legal being major specializations — and some LSPs offer specialized services. Others, however, require their interpreters to handle a much wider range of situations. A quick look at the website of one telephone interpreting service shows that it offers service to a health insurance company, a stem cell bank, a high-end grocery store and the American Red Cross. Another provider claims that it has clients in the financial, insurance, health care, government, telecom, utilities, manufacturing and transportation industries. All of these areas of expertise may require different knowledge, skills and abilities, and potentially different levels of proficiency. For generalized conversations, a single interpreter might be able to handle all these areas, but for more specialized ones, this may not be the case.

How can any assessment of an individual’s linguistic ability, necessarily restricted to a limited range of settings, be used to indicate his or her ability to function in a potentially unlimited set of unrelated circumstances? While no test can directly cover every situation and setting in which interpreters might find themselves, the LSP must be able to deliver a test that gives employers confidence that the candidate has the broad skillset required to cover the range of opportunities, even though they are not directly assessed. LSPs must use a test that identifies in some way those candidates who will be successful interpreters across a range of subjects, and weeds out those who will not.

It is here that the notion of language proficiency comes into its own, because higher proficiency in a language indicates a better ability to perform a wide range of functional tasks. Proficiency tests are applicable to all speakers of a language, no matter where or how they learned their language. Most importantly, they provide useful information about the practical, real-world abilities of the test-taker. From a proficiency test covering a wide range of unpredictable tasks and contexts, an LSP can infer a range of abilities much more easily than from a highly specialized performance test.

Whether you decide to fill the language gap with resources of your own, or to bring in an LSP to fill it for you, satisfying yourself that the candidate you appoint (or the individuals provided by the LSP) possesses the required proficiency will protect your organization and ensure that LEPs have full access to the services you provide.