What the coronavirus pandemic and increased teleworking means for language justice work.
February 27, 2020

We know that what happens in underserved communities often has a ripple effect, and now we’re all going to feel the waves much faster.

Jamila Craig, Esq. | March 20, 2020

Mobilizing people to take collective action is rarely easy, but what happens when you’re home alone, you speak one language, and the community you serve speaks 350?

(That’s a real number — it was not chosen randomly. At least 350 languages are spoken in US households.)

We know that what happens in underserved communities often has a ripple effect, and now we’re all going to feel the waves much faster. Yes, it’s true that we can probably get through this pandemic without communicating in 350 languages.  But, choosing one dominant language to communicate is definitely not a viable option for sharing information that an entire country needs to adhere to.

Governments and large organizations may have interpreting and translation procedures. By contrast, for many organizations providing critical resources in increasingly multilingual communities, the mandate for social distancing and telework creates an added challenge.  Fortunately, the principles of language justice used offline, are applicable online as well.

These principles of language justice call us to:

  1. Promote equitable language choices. Allowing the community we serve to communicate using the language most comfortable to them.
  2. Create multilingual spaces. In addition to using interpreters and translators, the goal is to avoid privileging a dominant language over the other languages found in our communities.
  3. Center social and racial justice. Recognize and respect the social, cultural, and political context of language and how it manifests differently across culture and race.

The goal of this article is to provide some strategies and considerations to incorporate these practices into our virtual work environments.

Here are 6 multilingual strategies to help promote language justice while working from home:

Access a network of 1000+ interpreters via phone.
*Free and low-cost options available for organizations serving high-need communities

  1. Create your online multilingual water cooler. Community organizing 101 tells us to meet people where they are. But, when reaching out to multilingual and multiracial communities, people don’t always hang out in the same places. Find a gathering spot where you can reach a broad cross-section of your community AND where they can reach you. (see #3 below)
  2. Curate multilingual content available online — and share it! In urgent circumstances, you may not have the capacity to translate everything in real-time. But, you can share the publically available resources with the folks at your ‘water cooler’ and encourage them to share. Is a school near you providing printed enrichment packets for kids as they pass out meals? Don’t just cut and paste the link to the English webpage. If the page is already translated into multiple languages, share those Spanish, Amharic, or Tagalog website links too. And don’t forget to share some fun multilingual memes too. Not only do people need a mental break, but they are also more likely to share it and attract more people back to your water cooler.
  3. Use technology strategically. First, depending on the community you serve, phone and text might be more useful than video-chat and email. According to the 2019 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, “Black and Hispanic adults remain less likely than whites to say they own a traditional computer or have high-speed internet at home.” In that same survey, researchers found that smartphones played a critical role in bridging that gap. To be clear, everyone is NOT using the same technology! Zoom, Slack, and even email may seem commonplace for you, but it isn’t for everyone. The language you use won’t matter if people don’t receive the communication. In times of emergency, the technology you use to reach a lot of people needs to be simple and easily accessible.
  4. Create two-way communication channels (because one-way communication is a sign of privilege). You NEED to hear from people just as much as you need to share information. To avoid critical missteps make sure you have a way to receive multilingual community input. Is your organization trying to mobilize people to vote and reach out to their representatives — while they’re worried about getting sick, being laid off, teaching their children from home with no wifi, and making sure there is food in the house? Think carefully about the information you’re sharing. Is that the information people need most right now? When we communicate without checking our privilege, we often treat our priorities as if they should be everyone’s priorities. Two-way communication will help you provide relevant information that will attract people to you as a resource rather than block you out as internet noise.
  5. Use Over-the-Phone Interpreting Services. Translation is for written communication.  Interpreting is for verbal communication. BOTH services can be provided virtually.  Make a plan for how and when to use professional interpreters and translators, volunteers, bilingual staff etc. In Japan, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry provided information predominantly in Japanese, with the remaining information shared via machine translation. After readers found numerous translation errors in the English, Chinese, and Korean versions of the website, the ministry put up links “to special pages…carrying information supposedly compiled by professional translators.” When time is of the essence, translations must be accurate — the first time. Also, if you’re thinking of sending all of your interpreting and translation requests to your favorite bilingual team member. Think again! Is it part of their job description? Do they have training as an interpreter or translator? Are you going to pay them for the extra work? If you answered NO to at least 2 of those questions, get a professional interpreter or translator to help you.
  6. Center equity, not equality. One of the principles of language justice includes creating a space where people can have the same, or similar experience, regardless of what language they speak. In times of emergency, it may not be possible to create the same experience for everyone while also balancing the urgent need to reach people and provide critical services. That’s okay. Focus on equity, not equality. The goal should be to do your best to create equitable outcomes when it comes to communication.

This is not an exhaustive list. It is an essential foundation. If we are purposeful about centering language justice to get through this international health crisis, maybe, just maybe, our social and racial justice work will be just a little bit easier on the other side of this pandemic. Maybe more people will understand the difference between an immigrant and a refugee. Maybe more people will feel a deeper understanding of what it means to pull yourself up with no bootstraps. Maybe the compassion we feel in our hearts for our neighbors will turn into the actions we take for our community.

Maybe there will be even more of us who — RESIST!