Individuals have a fundamental right to have their voices heard.
October 31, 2022 8:24 AM   Subscribe

Language justice is a practice based on the concept that everyone has the basic human right to speak in the language(s) in which we feel most comfortable at a given time, where no one language is dominant in a space or discussion. Decentering English is liberation-based in principle but difficult in practice.

More than 25 million people in the US speak a language other than English at home. Language justice is critically important for health care, legal services, workplace safety, and education.

While the tools for AI translation are improving they continue to require time and/or human eyeballs to produce finished, accurate work. Additionally, many of the tools initially focus on English-language datasets. Here are some resources for more effective language justice practice.

Of note, for discussion purposes, translators deal with written language and interpreters deal with spoken language.

- Use plain language at events so the burdens of interpreters are lower.
- Do language outreach in advance of your event. Who do you want to attend? What languages do they speak? Make your registration process part of your outreach.
- Understand the specific needs of different communities in terms of interpreting for their needs. Consider Interpreting for Social Justice training.
- If your organization has interpreters available, become familiar with simultaneous interpretation options built into platforms like Jitsi or Zoom.
- Contribute to the Common Voice Community with code, documentation, or even just recordings of your own voice (intro slide deck)
- Create your own resources when you see a language justice deficit in your community
- If your organization has resources consider investing in durable equipment such as headsets which can be shared out with underresourced groups. Have everyone wear headsets at your event, not just people in linguistic minority groups.
- Don't reinvent the wheel. There are many good Language Justice toolkits and curricula available to help you get it right.

posted by jessamyn (30 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not comfortable framing a rights debate with a wobbly concept like comfort; rights are necessarily imposed by burden upon another, to whom the respect of precision is owed. It's not always easy to communicate something esoteric like a right in plain language. Language accessibility is still worth striving for, but for other reasons.
posted by grokus at 8:58 AM on October 31, 2022 [9 favorites]

Examples of how incredibly important this is (all from Australia)

COVID prevention information and vaccination information was not made adequately available to the D/deaf community who spoke Auslan (Australian sign language for the D/deaf). Even when Auslan interpreters were present at major press conferences, they were often cropped off screen from televised broadcasts, so that no one watching at home was able to see them.

COVID prevention information and vaccination information was not adequately made available to people with poor English language skills. In some cases, this resulted in people breaching public health measures because they had not been made aware of those public health measures. In other instances, it delayed people's ability to get vaccinated, because they had not yet been told in their own language that their age cohort was eligible or that their preexisting health conditions made them eligible.

For instance, information was made available in several languages on Government websites, but the translated information was often several weeks/months out of date compared to the English language information,

and in one instance, if you clicked the link for information in Indonesian, IT PROVIDED YOU WITH INFORMATION WRITTEN IN TURKISH

Tue 27 Oct 2020 = Indonesian COVID information written in Turkish is just one obstacle for Victoria's migrant communities
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 9:27 AM on October 31, 2022 [6 favorites]

More recently, there were people who missed out on timely information about evacuation during Eastern Australia's severe 2022 floods, and who could have died as a result, because evacuation information was mainly or ONLY being provided in English.

Sat 22 Oct 2022 = Multicultural communities need to be part of Victoria's flood emergency plans, leaders say

"People from culturally diverse backgrounds have narrowly avoided being caught out in potentially life-threatening situations in Victorian floods because of language barriers. Community leaders say that needs to change."

The sad thing here is that this news article is almost exactly 2 years after the October 2020 article about how people not fluent in English were not being adequately provided with translated information by the Victorian state government, and yet nothing had changed.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 9:33 AM on October 31, 2022

After three people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities lost their lives during the 2022 February-March flood event (and it seems that lack of timely information in their own languages may have played a role in their deaths)

NSW SES launches new flood campaign in community languages targeting Sydney's north-west

A new information campaign to help culturally diverse communities in Sydney's north-west deal with a flood crisis will help keep them safe, the NSW SES Commissioner says.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 9:42 AM on October 31, 2022

Most of those who died in the flooding in NYC last year were reported to have limited English proficiency. Alerts were sent only in English and Spanish. It's not direct causation, because not being able to speak English (or Spanish) well tends to be associated with poverty and poverty with living in illegal below-grade housing, which flooded, but it can't have helped.
posted by praemunire at 10:10 AM on October 31, 2022 [2 favorites] the same time, though, this principle

everyone has the basic human right to speak in the language(s) in which we feel most comfortable at a given time

seems...tricky. In the present day, in the substantial majority of circumstances, people who don't speak the same language can only communicate in circumscribed ways. I don't think that can be wished away. ( one say "you just need to speak a little Spanish." I speak a little Spanish. I don't speak a little Russian, Cantonese, or Toisanese. There is an upper limit.) Maybe someday computers will make this possible. I hope that day comes soon. In the meantime, I would prefer to focus on making sure that urgent communications of all sorts, communications inherently targeted at vulnerable populations, and virtually every interaction with the government, are properly translated or interpreted. To be fair, that is basically what the suggested practical measures actually aim at.
posted by praemunire at 10:17 AM on October 31, 2022 [8 favorites]

Also: there's a widespread problem in the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere with children being expected to act as interpreters for their parents or grandparents who are not fluent in English.

It's not okay to expect a child to tell a parent or grandparent "you have terminal cancer" or "you have a sexually transmitted disease" because the doctor's office or the hospital doesn't want to pay $$$ for a professional interpreter.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 10:27 AM on October 31, 2022 [13 favorites]

Apart from potential harm to the child, the other danger of using a child as a medical interpreter is that parents/grandparents might withhold relevant information from doctors about alcohol use, cigarette use, drug use, sexual behaviour, because they don't want their child to know, and that could seriously adversely affect the quality of the medical treatment that they receive.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 11:26 AM on October 31, 2022 [5 favorites]

Where I work, all court proceedings are translated in three languages - English, Spanish and Haitian Creole. It does take longer but these are such big populations that the city decided to prioritize translation and pay for it.

The idea that courts, schools, and other government offices should run in "every" languange seems impractical, there aren't that many translators available and the time and expense would be a huge burden on the government. Maybe someday computer translations can fill this gap cheaply.

But there are definitely things you can do if this is an issue in your community. At the school where I work, for instance, most written communications from the superintendent go out in English, Spanish and sometimes Hatian Creole or French. Some events have translators. Some phone blasts are in multiple languages.

In practice, it's the French & Spanish teachers at the schools doing almost all of the translation work, and they do it on top of regular teaching workload (which, if you guys know what's going on in US education right now, you'll know they already have large classes & tons of administrative work to do). In the last union contract, those teachers negotiated to be paid an hourly rate for their translation work... prior to that most of the work was done for free.

Anyway it is possible to do this work in a way that's fair and not putting a burden on translators, but you do have to make it a priority and pay for it.
posted by subdee at 11:50 AM on October 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

Even if you commit to making all official government communications available in the 5 most common languages other than English in the country in question, that would be a huge improvement

In Australia that would be
Mandarin (2.7 per cent of all Australians)
Arabic (1.4 per cent of all Australians),
Vietnamese (1.3 per cent of all Australians),
Cantonese (1.2 per cent of all Australians)
and Punjabi (0.9 per cent of all Australians). (Source: 2021 census)
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 12:09 PM on October 31, 2022 [3 favorites]

The college in my town has an office for community partnerships, and I just learned that one of the things they are doing this year is partnering international students with immigrant families in local schools to be interpreters in things like school conferences and ESL situations. This seems like a very local and natural effort that has the potential to really improve immigrant experiences in my (very white) county.

As far as I know this is a work study position for the student involved, so that they do get paid and recognized on the academic side.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 12:10 PM on October 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

At the foundation of the European Community in 1958, 4 languages were recognised: Deutsch, Français, Italiano, Nederlands. With Croatian added in 2013, the EU Parliament is translating all its docs and providing simultaneous translation into 24 languages. That's 552 possible language pairs. "The Directorate-General for Translation employs approximately 1140 staff, among them more than 600 translators", I guess there are people who are a) fluent in Maltese and Irish b) want to live in Strasbourg but it's a fairly exclusive club. A lot of interesting life-stories in the DG for Translation, that's for sure.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:20 PM on October 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

This reminds me of this Rough Translation episode "How to Speak Bad English." The main argument is that instead of expecting everyone to speak fluent and unaccented English, English speakers need to be making more of an effort to understand global English(es).
posted by coffeecat at 12:51 PM on October 31, 2022 [4 favorites]

My cousin made a bit of a living at one time translating between Dutch and Welsh. There was apparently a reasonable demand for it.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 1:24 PM on October 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

The idea that courts, schools, and other government offices should run in "every" languange seems impractical, there aren't that many translators available and the time and expense would be a huge burden on the government.

For courts, in the U.S., it's basically a constitutional necessity. We were able to get someone to translate for a couple of Bangladeshi witnesses in a trial with a few weeks' notice. With the improvement of remote capabilities in courtrooms, having a physically remote translator Zoom in should be growing more feasible, thereby reducing costs.

This is an issue I think it will be important to continue to revisit, as the costs of machine translation at least good enough for everyday use, if maybe not for formal legal testimony or documents, will probably continue to drop. It's unfortunate that some of the most important uses--medical or legal--also involve both specialized technical jargon and a lack of exact cultural equivalents in many languages. E.g., "notary" translates as "notario" but notaries and notarios perform substantially different (but overlapping) functions in the respective countries, meaning that unscrupulous American notaries have been known to scam Spanish-speaking immigrants.
posted by praemunire at 1:50 PM on October 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

unaccented English

There's no such thing.
posted by praemunire at 1:51 PM on October 31, 2022 [11 favorites]

Just for clarity: translators write; interpreters speak.
posted by aniola at 1:58 PM on October 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

It's unfortunate that some of the most important uses--medical or legal--also involve both specialized technical jargon and a lack of exact cultural equivalents in many languages.

"The spirit catches you and you fall down" is a book from the 80s that gets at this.
posted by aniola at 2:00 PM on October 31, 2022 [4 favorites]

My wife is training as a medical interpreter, and I just want to say: it's hard, way harder than it looks. You have to know the medical jargon in both languages. You have to be accurate and remember the key details in, say, a list of symptoms or directives. You have to manage one or both parties not used to speaking in short bursts rather than rambling on as they please.

Computers can do just-good-enough translations if you want to, say, read a newspaper article. I would not trust them to correctly render a list of prescription drugs and dosages, or to correctly explain the next bureaucratic hoop a client has to jump through.
posted by zompist at 2:37 PM on October 31, 2022 [5 favorites]

It's not just about enabling people to access services in English dominated societies. Minority languages are important in their own right. For example Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and BSL are all vibrant living indigenous languages within the current borders of the UK. They are not lesser than English and they deserve championing. Each language is a different window for humans to view the world, and create beauty and meaning. We should keep as many languages as we possible can. (And I really must learn some actual BSL at some point, instead of the odd word.)
posted by plonkee at 3:30 PM on October 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think there will always be a gradient. For example, here in British Columbia, important health information is generally available in 15 languages, which I think is pretty good. But I don't think anyone expects all government communications to be available in quite so many languages, because it would be cost prohibitive.
posted by ssg at 5:33 PM on October 31, 2022

There's no such thing.

Yeah, that's the point (no argument here). But that doesn't magically wave away powerful language ideologies - the main person the podcast highlights got into language activism out of her frustration with her job (training people to "lose their accent in English" often at the behest of their employer).
posted by coffeecat at 6:15 PM on October 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

While people sometimes stereotype college writing instructors as ruthless red-pen-wielding error-hunters, the field has been doing some solid work officially affirming students' right to "their own patterns and varieties of language— the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style" since 1974, reaffirmed in 2003 and 2014, with an extensive annotated bibliography.
posted by vitia at 9:31 PM on October 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

My wife works as an election poll worker and they've run into issues where they don't have written information available in all the languages they encounter.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:56 AM on November 1, 2022

I guess there are people who are a) fluent in Maltese and Irish b) want to live in Strasbourg but it's a fairly exclusive club

For interpretation in the European Parliament, a lot of the lesser used languages use relay translation, with a third language in between. So someone will translate from Maltese to say English, and from there to Irish. would assume that something similar happens for translation.

(However, if you really needed a Maltese-Irish translator for some reason, I'd put the TG4 people on it, they seem to be able to find Irish speakers *anywhere*.)
posted by scorbet at 6:31 AM on November 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

Speaking of relay translation, one of the coolest things about a bilingual dictionary where neither is your primary language is that using it helps you get better at all three languages (obvs), but it also allows you to 'triangulate' the rough semantic space in which the word fits, in all three languages (at least accd to the lexicographer, etc), which then expands your understanding of those semantic spaces across all three languages, which aids in your ability to analyze style, genre, voice, etc immensely.

It's pretty cool and I recommend it highly.
posted by eclectist at 9:00 AM on November 1, 2022

This reminds me of this Rough Translation episode "How to Speak Bad English." The main argument is that instead of expecting everyone to speak fluent and unaccented English, English speakers need to be making more of an effort to understand global English(es).

From another angle, I think it's been observed monolinguals (in this case with some urgency due to global use, monolingual Anglophones) tend to have the worst comprehension and communication skills in multi-cultural settings due to unexamined heavy use of colloquialisms and cultural references. I notice this but I'll complicate it with native-level speakers period - since I come from more bi/multilingual backgrounds, so I'm used to seeing Anglophones in absolute confusion speaking to Sinophones and Malay speakers and what else, even if they should at least have a language shared between them. Interpretation is a skill/fluency that needs practice - just because you can speak them doesn't mean you know how to traverse across them to communicate. This is also something I'm sure many second-generation (and so on) speakers can relate.

The way this shows up in daily life is public communications necessarily contain technical or difficult concepts, so once the ideal of having a spectrum of languages represented is somewhat achieved, the next headache is being able to parse the material into everyday language. The loan word problem, basically.

Anyway, just sharing some more observational anecdata.
posted by cendawanita at 7:39 AM on November 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

The main argument is that instead of expecting everyone to speak fluent and unaccented English, English speakers need to be making more of an effort to understand global English(es

But really, i dedicate my comment above to the French Canadian who took it upon himself to correct my pronunciation of academia* and karaoke** on two separate occasions.

*Yes it's not a standard North American pronunciation that I have for it
** Bro, your way sucks
posted by cendawanita at 7:43 AM on November 2, 2022

I am a functionally monoglot English speaker who has studied Russian, American Sign Language (ASL), and a very small amount of Spanish. I have very poor second-language skills, struggling to retain vocabulary and to make sense of the syntax of languages other than English. The three-dimensional way ASL assigns pronouns was especially difficult for me to grasp. I watched fluent ASL speakers telling stories assign as many as four or five pronouns to people and places in the story (established by pointing to a specific space in front of the speaker to assign it the pronoun, and then referring to that space with pointing or other body movements to refer to the pronoun's referent) and it was not something I could track.

What I would very much like to be better at is understanding the English of the people around me for whom English is a second language, or people whose accents are difficult for me to understand given my own limitations of exposure. I'm currently living in an apartment complex where, in my building, I have only seen one other white American resident since moving in a month or so ago. My 15yo, who gets out and about meeting people a lot, says we have a lot of neighbors from Nigeria, as well as from India and Japan, and there are plenty of Spanish speakers as well.

For me, getting better at this involves being brave enough to jump into conversations where I might be in over my head a bit. At various times, my ear has been trained to understand the accents of deaf people and people with cerebral palsy, so I know it's possible—one good friend with CP went from someone I could kind of understand most of the time if I paid very careful attention, to someone whose accent I didn't notice at all.

But I lack that courage. My poor second-language skills are both a cause of my reticence around people I don't easily understand, and an effect of it. My son knows about 20 words in Spanish, but he doesn't hesitate to chat with our upstairs neighbors. Much of these conversations consist of smiles and friendly greetings, but he'll come out of them with a tiny bit of new vocabulary and a renewed commitment to Duolingo practice. I don't have his nerve, and it holds me back.

I do appreciate the information on plain language. In my ASL classes, we worked on learning to recognize idioms and put them into straightforward English. My English language skills are extremely good, so I found this aspect of things relatively straightforward. I am a teacher and a tutor, and this has led to me having a tendency to say things in two or three different ways, like, "Does that make sense? Do you understand it? Did I explain it OK?" and I'm learning not to do that during my stressful and challenging conversations with people whose English may be as limited as my Spanish, say, or whose English is good but who might not be able to follow a rapid stream of words like that.

When I was in Russia many years ago, I would find myself overwhelmed by people's answers to my questions. "Excuse me, can you tell me where I can find a restaurant?" I would get out in my terribly accented Russian, and the stream of words that came back, along with pointing and gestures, would quickly just turn into gibberish in my ears. I always imagined them saying, "Well, let me think...there's a cafeteria two blocks down on the right, or is it the left? No, it's definitely on the right. But if you want something a bit better, turn right after one block and go, oh, say, about a quarter mile? Maybe a bit farther? You'll see an old church on the corner, and that's how you know you're close. Turn right just before the church, and about halfway down that block you'll find a decent place that will sell you some good chicken soup, bread, and tea for maybe fifty kopecks. But if you don't want to walk that far, the cafeteria will be fine, though the soup will have less chicken meat in it and the broth will be a bit greasier. But that's what the bread is for, right? To soak up all that good fat! Ha, ha. Have a good day, American person!"

It is helpful to be taught to do a better job of communicating with the people around me. I am determined to be brave and take advantage of the opportunities my new home gives me to meet interesting people. I want my community to be a welcoming home to my neighbors from outside the US, as well as those from the US with various denigrated accents and modes of speech.
posted by Well I never at 3:21 PM on November 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

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