Government

Enabling the American Journey

Expanding language access for LEP individuals in the US

By Deema Jaradat

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othing enriches the American salad bowl like the medley of Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals — who are also speakers of various foreign languages. Linguistic diversity is an inextricable thread in the fabric of the US as we know it today, and diversity and inclusion stand among the nation’s major assets. Recognizing language access as a fundamental right is crucial for ensuring that every individual, regardless of their English proficiency, can navigate essential aspects of their American journey, such as paperwork or healthcare, without undue delays.

In recent times, linguists extended a commendable effort to expand language access, particularly in governmental content, to cater to the needs of LEP persons. In August 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13166 (EO13166) “Improving Access to Services for People with Limited English Proficiency.” The commitment to language access was echoed again in January 2024 when New Jersey passed Bill S2459, requiring all state government entities to render their vital content in seven of the state’s most common languages.

While great progress has been made, much work remains. The good news is language access does not have to be a resource-consuming endeavor. Cost-effective, win-win solutions for all stakeholders — including linguists, LEP persons, government agencies, and foreign language and translation programs nationwide — are perfectly achievable.

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“Man vs. machine” becomes “man and machine”

Human-technology collaboration is not only the future, but also the present reality, especially in our field. Machine translation (MT) and artificial intelligence (AI) systems are being integrated daily into the work of linguists, and a symbiotic relationship with the emerging technology is hence more critical than ever. To thrive and survive in this evolving landscape, linguists need to be adaptable, malleable, and willing to reinvent themselves. The advent of these systems will not make human linguists jobless, but will rather reimagine their roles and expand possibilities. Human-tech collaborations can help make knowledge accessible for everybody in a cost-effective, efficient fashion.

To best reap the benefits of human-tech collaborations, it is essential to acknowledge the weaknesses and strengths of both MT engines and human translators. For example, MT plugins can translate just about any (government) website of any size in seconds, but the accuracy and reliability of their output are not yet up to par. This is where the human finesse can step in to refine their accuracy, reliability, acceptability, and cultural sensitivity (where applicable). Language access expansion could start with investing in MT post editing (MTPE). In other words, instead of brushing MT engines or linguists aside altogether, they can work together and complement each other.

Speaking of complementary relationships, two heads think better than one, and while human intelligence is irreplaceable, it is augmentable by AI, especially generative AI. These state-of-the-art systems are the epitome of “you are what you eat.” Therefore, agencies and entities with LEP-oriented content to translate can invest in training and fine-tuning AI models specifically for translating their content. Ultimately, this would help automate and expand language access on the long run, all the while providing LEP persons with high-quality, accurate, and natural-sounding translations before too long.

Term management means bigger impact

Good translation maintains consistency across the board, and there is no doing that without managing content at a granular level, starting with terminology. Agencies and entities with content to translate may invest in creating a public terminology database- termbase- comprising key terms, which creates yet another avenue for human-tech collaborations. AI systems, for example, can help extract terms from a text of any size in just seconds, though arguably — just like the good-old term extraction tools — they produce much “noise” (i.e., unwanted terms) in the process. Linguists can then clean up the noise and document the terms in a user-friendly termbase.

There is a wealth of research on the high return on investment (ROI) termbases can generate; and in this case, the ROI is twofold. A termbase would expand LEP persons’ access to current and future content. It could also help linguists standardize the translation of frequently used terms into other languages, especially diglossic ones such as Arabic. The semitic language has at least three versions (classical, modern standard (MSA), and colloquial) and at least 22 dialects. The diglossic nature of the language has resulted in a certain degree of inconsistency in translating key terms, which has painted terms with a wide brush of polysemy and led to mistranslations in the past.

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Education programs can bloom again

Collaborative education is the cornerstone of sustainable change. Between 2020 and 2023, 651 foreign language programs nationwide turned into haunted houses. Setting a trend of government-institution and student-community partnerships can help expand language access and keep foreign language education afloat.

By fostering partnerships between government agencies and educational institutions, we create an ecosystem where language access is not just a regulatory requirement, but a shared responsibility. Internships and collaborative programs become avenues for students to gain practical experience while directly contributing to language access initiatives. In this symbiotic relationship, educational programs receive the support needed to stay afloat, government agencies benefit from fresh perspectives and a dedicated pool of linguists, and students gain hands-on opportunities to bridge gaps between theory and practice and address any blind spots in translating content for government agencies. This creates a pipeline of qualified linguists actively contributing to language access expansion, who are aware of the challenges faced by LEP persons.

All change starts from within, and to stay afloat, foreign language and translation studies programs cannot survive without aligning their curriculum with the current trends. Digital skills have become just as important as language proficiency for modern-day linguists and for language access expansion endeavors. Incorporating modules on language technology does not help per se, but identifying how the emerging technology can help minimize communication bottlenecks surely helps. It is essential to graduate cohorts of students who are kept abreast of current trends and who are aware of the possible applications of technology to address gaps. Integrating the principles underlying current needs such as language access into these education programs is paramount for nurturing a new generation of linguists attuned to the language needs of diverse communities in today’s world.

Final verdict

As the world moves forward, leaving LEP persons behind is not an option. Language access is a right that requires efforts from all stakeholders, including government agencies, linguists, and educational institutions. Language access is a long-term investment that is more affordable and attainable than we might think. The opportunity to render content accessible at little cost is right in front of us, and it is time we seized it.

The symbiotic relationship between human expertise and technological advancements has expanded possibilities with regards to expanding language access. As language technology continues to be injected into our field every day, we linguists stand at a pivotal juncture. The emergence of language technology should serve as a catalyst for us to innovate cost-effective and efficient solutions for expanding language access more promptly and comprehensively.

Verbal and linguistic diversity makes the US unique and rich. Both EO13166 and S2459 underscore an unwavering commitment to enhancing this diversity and promoting it as an asset, not a barrier. Partnering with key players in the field — be that technology, linguists, post editors, terminologists, students, and language technology developers — can help create a future where the American salad bowl is even richer and at little cost. The actions we take today will shape the language access landscape for years to come.

Finally, keep in mind that expanding language access is not just a practical necessity — it is a right for those whose command of English is limited. The ship has not sailed yet, and we still can help them navigate the American journey.

Deema Jaradat is a Master’s in Translation student at Kent State University who has worked as an in-house and freelance translator. Jaradat created the first-ever public terminology database to help expand language access for Arabic-speaking LEP persons in the US.

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