July 10, 2024

A New Role for Language Services Providers in the Field of Social Justice.

How Doing Good Means Doing Well in Our Industry

It’s no secret that 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 that 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 concepts.  

Technology is rapidly changing the language industry through 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 (Passalacqua, Montpetit, 2023).

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). (Lee, Migration Policy Institute, 2023).  

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 the solution to language barriers is that people simply learn how to speak English. After all “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 Babel march in Washington D.C.  There is no pride in being a member of the Limited English Proficient (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.” (Dietrich, Hernandez, U.S. Census Bureau, August 2022).

Meaningful access to a range of public and private services is a challenge for persons with LEP.

They face worse outcomes than English speakers across all public services. For example, patients with LEP are four times more likely to experience severe temporary harm from a medical event than an English speaker. (Chapter 1: Background on Patient Safety and LEP Populations, Content last reviewed September 2020, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality).  A person with LEP is more likely to be wrongfully accused and convicted of a crime in the absence of interpretation services during an interrogation (Innocence Project, October 2022). 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. (January 2015, U.S. Departments of Justice and Education).  11 million children are used as interpreters and translators, often even missing school and despite expressed feelings of fear of the potential consequences of their misinterpretations/translations. The list goes on.

In the private sector, we see prominent language barriers in the insurance, banking and lending, and credit card service industries. 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 their Spanish-speaking clients (Insurance Scorecard, Keynova, 2023). 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 and falling through the cracks when they get behind on their mortgage and need help obtaining an affordable monthly payment (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 2021).

What do we do with an amorphous, unseen, and unnamed problem like this one?

First, give it a name, then re-define the problem altogether.

Our society has normalized the discrimination of those who don’t speak English to such a degree that it is not only acceptable but celebrated the utilization of their children to provide interpretation and translation services. Services that must be provided by paid professional interpreters and translators, at no cost to the immigrant with Limited English, and which could be a traumatizing and even a dangerous experience for everyone involved. Examples of this normalization can be described by the general reaction generated by the short film: “Translators”, a documentary created by the US Bank and directed by Rudy Valdez. In the film 3 children must interpret for all sorts 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 prized and described as heartwarming, extolling the role of the children as lifesavers. Instead, 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 in this behavior are disregarding their own professional code of ethics. Public services professions have an ethical obligation to communicate effectively. When overcoming the language barrier, using children or any other methods 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 federal, state, and local laws, and professional codes of ethics, is a particularly effective approach. It removes the burden from the population that is victimized and points it towards the people, organizations, and institutions that are 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.

How do we elevate our society’s consciousness?

For Language Services Providers, the main challenge when it comes to 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, such as this, can also be profitable. They grapple with the question: How is it that doing good can also help me do well?

  1. Partner with the right group

When I founded my company Equal Access Language Services, 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 encounter 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”,  “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 and take part in this cultural shift. They are in tune with their values, and they see how language access is an easy fit.  However, they are not the only departments with whom to collaborate! Depending on the industry, you may find other parts of the organization where language access will resonate, i.e: compliance, legal, operations, etc.

  1. 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 we continue to help our clients expand their businesses globally, we can help them see language access as a key aspect of inclusion and strategic planning even if the means to accomplish these continue to be translation, interpretation, localization, and a plethora of other language services and cultural trainings.

  1. 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 are Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS).

Helping our clients see the return on their investment in language access because of long term, sustainable effort 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!

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

What are the benefits from LSPs investing in language access?

  • 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 inclusion of multilingual communities will be well understood.

Social Justice is an arena where LSPs can make a significant difference.

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 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.

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