Confusion about Language,” Clive Varley

I am writing these words in English, my native language. As an English speaker with a high level of literacy, I am at a distinct advantage when it comes to accessing important information and acquiring new knowledge. I am far more likely to benefit from content that I can easily understand. Of the top 10 million websites, 54 percent are in English. Whenever I do encounter content that isn’t in English, there is technology available to provide me with fairly accurate translations.

Speakers of other languages are unlikely to have this same experience. Nearly 26 million people in the US speak no or limited English. Equity in access to communication across languages is a long-simmering problem. In the age of COVID-19, it has become all the more acute. As hospitals scramble to treat patients, many who don’t speak English are left alone, confused, and without proper care.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the US and around the world, most information has been provided in English or other major international and national languages, and mostly in written formats. Speakers of marginalized languages, and/or those with lower levels of literacy, have been put at greater risk. This disproportionately affects older people, women and girls, people with disabilities, migrants, and refugees who are less likely to speak or read major languages.

Where translations of COVID-19 information in languages other than English are produced, they quickly become outdated. Translations can take weeks to be updated when advice or rules change. By the time credible information gets translated and disseminated, rampant misinformation has already likely been spread repeatedly across numerous online and offline channels in multiple languages. Media reports also show that contact tracing proved especially difficult in immigrant communities in the US because of language barriers.

Misunderstandings and miscommunication are commonplace, sometimes with devastating consequences. A study showed that in the first three months of 2020 alone, at least 800 people may have died and about 5,800 people were hospitalized around the world because of COVID-19 misinformation.

Speakers of marginalized languages are often further excluded and may face other disadvantages because of their gender, age, or disability. For instance, in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, Translators without Borders (TWB) found that older people, particularly older women, have had less information than others about COVID-19. In Uganda, a deaf man was shot in the leg by police for being out after curfew because he had not received information about the curfew in sign language; his leg was later amputated.

Content that fails to address the needs of speakers of marginalized languages perpetuates the power imbalance that prioritizes the dominant culture at the expense of everyone else. Producing English-only written content reinforces the profound disparities that we are working against.

Communities Creating Healthy Environments defines “language justice” as “building and sustaining multilingual spaces in our organizations and social movements so that everyone’s voice can be heard both as an individual and as part of a diversity of communities and cultures.”

The responsibility to achieve greater language justice does not only lie with linguists and language experts. Awareness about language and multilingual communications should be the domain of everyone involved in social movements, nonprofits, philanthropy, and human rights advocacy.

You can help dismantle language barriers by starting with your own organization’s communications. Here are five simple steps to get started:

  1. Collect data on which languages people speak. A fundamental step is to identify unfilled language needs by determining which languages are spoken by your audiences, their literacy levels, and whether they can readily access and comprehend your content. One of the core principles of effective communications is “know your audience.” Yet, many nonprofits engage in communications campaigns without considering the languages and literacy of their target populations. It’s easy to assume that everyone in your community can understand if you communicate in English or one other common language, but the data can tell another story. A TWB language map of the people impacted by the 2020 wildfires on the west coast of the US revealed a population of over 1.5 million people whose primary language is Chinese, nearly a million Tagalog/Filipino speakers, and almost two million combined speakers of Vietnamese, Hindi, and Korean. Everyone should have a comprehensive and inclusive evaluation of the languages spoken in any region where their work has impact.
  2. Use plain language. Plain language principles are about more than simple words. Plain language is about accessibility to the end user as a guiding priority, and it is relevant to any form of communication. Even in the world’s wealthier countries, 49 percent of adults on average have low literacy. Plain language provides greater access for more people by reducing the reading effort and providing clear, concise information. Plain language also makes your content better optimized for translation into other languages.
  3. Develop terminology and glossaries. Consistency in messaging and terminology is a communications best practice. Consistent terms are all the more important when you are producing content for speakers of different languages. Even if you don’t have the resources or capacity to have all of your content translated, creating a multilingual glossary that provides standard terminology and translations for key phrases and concepts into culturally relevant terms can go a long way. For instance, some cultures might have taboos or gendered ways to describe sensitive topics like sexual violence or might have no direct translation for concepts like “social distancing.” Poor or inconsistent translations of key concepts can lead to confusion and stigmatization or, at worst, life-threatening decisions. Glossaries with translations of key terms will make it easier for speakers of different languages to understand, share, and communicate about your content.
  4. Include multimedia formats. Pictorial, audio, and video content not only makes your content more attractive and engaging, but it also makes your communications more accessible to broader audiences and people of all literacy levels. Image-rich content and explanatory illustrations will also make your communications easier for non-English speakers to understand and will be less likely to get lost in translation. Accessibility for older people depends on design considerations such as larger fonts and good contrast. To convey the correct information, pictorial messaging should also reflect local culture and practices.
  5. Work with trained translators. Writer George Steiner said, “Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.” Translators possess transformative skills. They build bridges to cross the barriers that hamper important connections that we all need to thrive and grow in an ever more connected world. Even if you have multilingual staff, you likely could benefit from the expertise of a translator who is specialized in communicating to your target audience in their own language. All too frequently, untrained staff are expected to be the primary translators for their organization’s content. This does a disservice to the staff member’s time and workload, and it is a disservice to people who rely on the accuracy and quality of your translations.

Prioritizing language and the accessibility of your content is an important step towards equity and justice, and it will position your organization’s message for greater possibilities of scale. However, it isn’t an endpoint. If your multilingual communications are to reach their full potential, they should be two-way.

Everyone has a right to access the information that impacts their lives, and they have a right to be heard. As you become more skilled in disseminating information across languages, you should aim to graduate to the next level by creating effective mechanisms for the people receiving your messages to speak back, give feedback, and provide insights on whether your communications are useful. When you offer people the means to not only understand your message but to also communicate back, express their own thoughts, and ask questions through two-way communications, you are helping to establish a genuine shift in power.

Language matters. Language is the thread that holds together our shared human experience. If your work is meant to impact people’s lives, you must commit to becoming more conscious of the importance of language. We all have a responsibility to help people access the information that impacts their lives, and to ensure they have the opportunity to engage, using the languages they know best.