LANGUAGE ACCESS

A New Role for LSPs in the Field of Social Justice
How doing good means doing well in our industry

By Carol Velandia

Language barriers can hinder effective communication, limit access to essential services, and impede cultural exchange. What remains unclear is the extent to which such barriers can impact the lives of millions of people in ways that can be described as oppressive and discriminatory. Also not fully explored is the role that the language services industry has in creating a more inclusive culture where such impact can be reduced.

Efforts to facilitate communication across cultures and languages have developed ever more effective methods of translation and interpretation. However, these methods need to operate within a new understanding and context of language rights, language justice, and language access if they are to be used for the effective inclusion of the members of our society who have historically experienced language-based discrimination. Based on the known barriers, improved tools, and a new understanding of a context that promotes the ethical imperative of granting people language rights, language justice, and language access. The language services industry is in an ideal position to promote a shared vision and understanding of these forward-thinking concepts.

Technology is rapidly changing the language industry through the automation of language assistance services, both translation and interpretation, at a lower cost and with improved accuracy. We are racing from machine translation to neural machine translation; from interpreting in a booth to remotely at a kitchen table; and from carrying a paper dictionary to using mobile translation apps. Advancements in artificial intelligence and large language models (LLMs) which permit chatbots to understand context and learn from past interactions to provide human-like responses are the latest frontier, according to analysts Angelo Passalacqua and Bryan Montpetit.

While we acknowledge language barriers and embrace technological advancements, the language industry does not have a shared vision of the role of language access, equal access to services, and the impact for “non-dominant language users,” or the legally utilized term limited English proficiency (LEP), according to Joann Lee of the Migration Policy Institute.

Furthermore, In the United States, there are pervasive beliefs that may be hindering the widespread adoption and implementation of effective language access services. The first is that people simply learning to speak English is the solution to the problem, hence the belief that “in America, we speak English.” Thus, language-based discrimination is an acceptable behavior, unlike racism or sexism. The second is the belief that the onus to provide such services is on the person with LEP and their bilingual children. The third is that language access is a heavy and costly burden.

One key challenge, distinct from other groups, is that LEP is not a celebrated identity. We don’t see people with LEP rallying around with multilingual banners incomprehensible to even other fellow persons with LEP in a Washington, D.C., Babel march. There is no pride in being a member of the LEP population as there is for a specific gender, race, religion, or culture. Yet it is a startling fact that 25.9 million people in the United States are LEP and speak English “less than very well, according to the US Census Bureau.

They face worse outcomes than English speakers across all public services. For example, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reports patients with LEP are four times more likely to experience severe temporary harm from a medical event than an English speaker. A person with LEP is more likely to be wrongfully accused and convicted of a crime without interpretation services during an interrogation, according to the Innocence Project. The US Department of Justice and the US Department of Education note that parents are excluded from their children’s education because schools do not have effective language access programs or provide the meaningful access required by federal laws. And 11 million children are used as interpreters and translators, often even missing school despite expressing fear of misinterpretations nad mistranslations. The list goes on.

In the private sector, we see prominent language barriers in the insurance, banking and lending, and credit card service industries. On their Insurance Scorecard, the Keynova group recently evaluated 12 of the largest insurance providers and found that while 60% offer customer support to Spanish-speaking clients, only 25% had claim assistance lines for them. When purchasing a home, a person with LEP will likely sign closing documents in English or through the interpretation of a minor, usually their own child, without fully understanding whether their interest rates are fixed or adjustable. This puts them in danger of falling through the cracks when they get behind on their mortgage and need help obtaining an affordable monthly payment, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

What do we do with a problem like this? First, give it a name, then redefine the problem altogether.

Our society has normalized the discrimination of those who don’t speak English to such a degree that requiring children to interpret and translate is not just normal but often celebrated. But this can be a traumatizing and even dangerous experience for everyone involved.

Consider the general reaction to the short film Translators, a documentary created by the US Bank and directed by Rudy Valdez. In the film, three children must interpret for an array of professionals (sometimes missing school to do this) and ultimately become responsible for guiding the decision of their LEP parents. Instead of outrage, this film was described as heartwarming, extolling the role of the children as lifesavers.

We must describe this situation as one where the right to effective communication and language access services was denied to an LEP family, causing discrimination, exclusion, and oppression. We should also underscore that using children as interpreters is reckless and that the professionals involved are disregarding their own professional code of ethics. Public services professionals have an ethical obligation to communicate effectively. When overcoming the language barrier, using children or any other method of communication that does not involve a professional interpreter or translator is unethical.

Redefining the lack of language access as a discriminatory practice that violates established laws and ethical codes is a particularly effective approach. It removes the burden from the victimized population and points it toward the people, organizations, and institutions responsible for compliance. It also inspires people to take effective action by orienting their language access programs from a place of compassion. This will, in turn, foster more adequate risk management and less wasteful spending borne out of miscommunications. Institutions must stop reacting to problems when it is already too late or by employing ineffective and often unethical practices such as using children, random bystanders as interpreters, or unchecked or unsupervised software or artificial intelligence.

Language services providers (LSPs) are in a prime position to make the plight of immigrants and persons with LEP visible. We can elevate our society’s consciousness and disrupt the current narrative around this issue. After all, language access is our business, and pursuing effective inclusion through it is our moral imperative.

For language services providers, the main challenge regarding Language Access is to conceive it as a place to expand market share. Businesses often struggle to see how endeavors that are humanistic in nature can also be profitable. They grapple with the question: How is it that doing good can also help me do well in business?

Partner with the right group

When I founded my company, my vision was to end language-based discrimination. To accomplish this, I conceived a collaboration with the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Access (DEIBA) departments. After all, their values are aligned with eliminating other forms of discrimination. I have faced challenges with this collaboration. In the best cases, I’ve encountered blank stares at the mention of language access. In the worst cases, I’ve found biased attitudes towards persons with LEP. One of the DEIBA leaders I interviewed a while ago told me: “Language access is not an urgent issue as race or gender are,” and, “If you are coming to my shop, you need to speak English!”

As disheartening as this was, I have seen more people in that space willing to listen. They are in tune with their values, and they see how language access is an easy fit. However, they are not the only partners for collaboration. Depending on the industry, you may find other parts of the organization where language access will resonate, like compliance, legal, or operations to name a few.

Expand the values of your company and your business proposition

We can align our business proposition with the vantage point of language rights, language justice, and language access. These are more expansive concepts where any language service and cultural sensitivity training could be included and tied to a moral imperative. As our clients expand their businesses globally, we can help them see language access as a key aspect of inclusion and strategic planning even if translation, interpretation, localization, and the like are our main roles.

Clarity on the laws around language access is key to reframing the problem in a way other businesses understand. As LSPs, it is to our advantage to understand the prohibition on national origin discrimination in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and similar laws; what Executive Order 13166 means when meaningful access is mentioned; or what Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) are.

Helping our clients see the return on their investment in language access because of long-term, sustainable efforts could be a catalyst for social and cultural change, as well as a profitable business offering. If you don’t like the possibly sanctimonious idea of changing society — to “be the change you want to see in the world” — then do it for your potential return on investment into your business.

My invitation is to inspire you to do good, but even if you take a much harder-headed business approach of profit maximization, you might also spark cultural transformation with an expanded focus. It is undeniable that more businesses and new generations of entrepreneurs want to be the change they want to see.

What are some of the benefits of language access for LSPs?

  • New customer acquisition: Businesses can reach and engage a broader customer base.
  • Market penetration: Language access enables businesses to expand into new markets.
  • Enhanced customer service: People will not be turned away.
  • Compliance with legal requirements: This benefits you and your customers.
  • Cost savings: This investment will enhance risk management and minimize errors.
  • Competitive advantage: When you provide language access, you beat your competitors.
  • Expanded participation in all interdisciplinary efforts: Your role as the link to the inclusion of multilingual communities will be well understood.

Perhaps our biggest challenge is to adjust our purpose to a greater goal than merely selling language assistance services. I am not suggesting that we all go and create language access plans or become social workers. Instead, our industry needs to promote a shared vision of language access rights and its impact on the lives of millions of people living in diverse language communities.

Working to address social issues created by language access barriers is a far more inspiring challenge than merely trying to transfer meaning from one language into another. Leave that task to the artificial intelligence gurus, who have already figured this out in many spheres. Instead, let’s aim to provide a deeper meaning to the concepts of effective communication, inclusion, and meaningful access. That is how I see the new role of language services providers. That is how I see the purpose of my business.

Carol Velandia  is the founder and CEO of Equal Access Language Services LLC. She is an expert in the areas of language access policy and negotiation and conflict resolution. 

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