The importance of language access

The importance of language access

Ensuring language access for everyone benefits our businesses and our communities

Society is more diverse and more multicultural than ever before. We now live, study and work alongside people from different backgrounds and with transnational histories. Unlike a few decades ago, hearing many varied languages spoken on our streets and in our neighborhoods is commonplace.

Our cultures and communities overlap more and more. We’re linked to colleagues and friends worldwide by fast, high-tech telecommunications, social media and the internet. We follow news from all corners of the globe as an everyday occurrence, as well as watching television and movies in different languages with the aid of subtitles or dubbing. We think nothing of jumping on a plane and jetting off to discover new countries and travel has almost returned to pre-pandemic heights.

The world, as they say, is getting smaller and we, as humans, are increasingly connected.

How we communicate with each other has never been more important.

What is language access?

Making sure that all the inhabitants of a country can equally access essential services and information means taking language into account. Discriminating against someone because they don’t speak an official or dominant language well enough should be a thing of the past. Language access is most important when not getting the right information could have a detrimental effect on the person involved.

Language access can also play a significant role in business, either because of its positive effect on reaching consumers or because colleagues and employees speak different languages.

Let’s look at some situations where being able to understand what’s being communicated is fundamental.

– In an emergency

Language access can sometimes be a matter of life or death.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, communicating safety measures and social distancing regulations in a constantly evolving situation was a challenge for authorities globally. It was quickly understood that language was key and that sticking to dominant languages was insufficient. Translators worldwide mobilized to provide essential messaging about the disease in as many of the world’s languages as possible.

Humanitarian emergencies also call for crisis translation and even the most basic phrases can help save lives. People perished during Hurricane Katrina when evacuation updates weren’t transmitted in Spanish or Portuguese. Earthquakes, storms and other extreme weather events all call for emergency messaging in the most commonly spoken languages of the affected communities, not just ‘official’ languages.

– In everyday life

Significant world events such as conflict, climate change and economic hardship are increasingly infiltrating our collective day-to-day. In recent times many people have been displaced by war and forced to begin new lives in new places where the dominant language isn’t one they speak fluently. People are also being compelled to move to new countries to seek better jobs and conditions as economic hardship makes life impossible in some parts of the globe.

Accessing basic services is a human right and can often only happen if a multilingual approach is adopted. Healthcare, education, justice systems and government services should be provided in the necessary languages and in places like the US it is inscribed in law. In the United States, 68 million speak a language that isn’t English at home and the number is rising. Nearly 30 million of those are identified as having limited English proficiency (LEP).

Globally it was estimated that 281 million people were international migrants in 2020, a figure that is three times what it was in 1970.

– In business

These significantly high numbers of people migrating represent valuable additions to both workplaces and local economies.

Businesses now frequently employ individuals whose home language is different from the primary language of the company where they work and it’s important to take this into account. Many European countries, for example, are facing severe labor shortages (Germany is highlighted as having an acute lack of skilled workers currently) and attracting workers from abroad is becoming vital. This means also thinking about language access, translation and inclusion generally.

Providing essential documents in the employee’s first language, particularly the contract of employment and health and safety information, is a logical first step. Training and subsequent professional development might also be needed in other languages, depending on the type of work involved.

With the boom in ‘working from home’, it’s now not uncommon for individuals to work for businesses based in different countries. Here in the language industry, we have first-hand experience of this and of working across time zones and various mother tongues. In this case, it’s important to simplify in-house communication and use clear and direct language that lends itself to translation if it’s needed.

From a commercial perspective, catering to more languages can be an opportunity for brand expansion and sales growth. The growing diversity of local and domestic markets means businesses don’t even have to cross international borders to benefit from a policy of multilingualism. We know from widespread research that consumers feel more comfortable making a purchase in their first language so if your company sells to groups of people who speak a different first language, including that language on your website, support services and payment methods, for example, would be a way to target growth.

Organizations that take language into consideration will be seen as providing a better customer experience and will build trust among wider, more varied communities.

How technology helps

New technology is helping break down language barriers more effectively and making access to language more equitable.

Interpreters are called on when a verbal message needs to get accurately and instantly translated, often in high-stakes situations. Nowadays, with the boom in video conferencing technology, the interpreter no longer needs to be present physically and video remote interpreting (VRI) is becoming a popular option, especially in healthcare settings. VRI can help make interpreting more cost-effective and opens up a gateway to a greater number of skilled interpreters.

Similarly, remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) uses both audio and video in a remote setting usually via a cloud-based platform. RSI happens simultaneously not consecutively like VRI and is used when larger groups of people need to understand what’s going on at the same time.

Artificial intelligence is now powering many language-based tools and they can undoubtedly offer assistance for language access. Devices that translate speech-to-text and vice versa in multiple languages provide fast and easy translation and tempting solutions. Machine translation apps are undoubtedly getting better but using any of the above for scenarios where accuracy and meaning are non-negotiable still isn’t a good idea. AI translation tech is good but not yet good enough when it really matters.

Ask the professionals

Language services providers know when using AI technology works and when human intervention is necessary. Machine translation is a useful tool but human supervision in the form of expert project management and post-editing is still needed. We use technology to our best advantage and translation management systems and other tools now eliminate unnecessary human steps in workflows and our turnaround times for translation are quicker than ever before.

Providing language access for your colleagues, customers or other stakeholders will be swift and pain-free with the right balance of people and technology.

Linguistic diversity is a human strength and something we should all value. Communicating effectively between languages and enabling everyone to use their chosen language is more achievable than ever.

Talk to t’works today about your language projects.

Your personal contact

Marie-Laure Vinckx

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