America’s Language Gap: Attaining Language Justice | Stillman Translations
America’s Language Gap: Attaining Language Justice

The U.S. is a country with immense cultural diversity in which 37.4% of the population consists of Multicultural Americans. However, language diversity acknowledgment is low and the not-so-small minorities are still claiming better tools and resources to attain language justice. We will review some examples in different contexts that highlight the advances made so far.

What is language justice?

In an article published in 2019, called Language Justice in Legal Services (Lee, Lundin, Noguez Mercado y Uliasz, 2019) language justice is described as the systematic fair treatment of people of all linguistic backgrounds and respect for everyone’s fundamental language rights- to be able to communicate, understand, and be understood in the language in which they prefer and feel most articulate and powerful.

Language justice is, fundamentally, individuals’ right to have their voices heard honoring language and cultural diversity; equal rights in language promoting equal opportunities.

Valuing language justice means recognizing the social and political dimensions of language and access to language and dismantling its barriers. Interpretation and translation are indispensable tools where a simple Google translation is not enough to ensure the translation quality required in less widely used languages.

This affects all spaces of the daily life of multicultural Americans: education, health, civil duties, and technology.

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, assuring language justice was a difficult task for every industry and required the collaboration of several entities, public and private as we will mention in later examples, working in synergy. In addition, the problem of language barrier was aggravated by the lack of technology access for several communities.

Language Justice in the legal environment, for instance, meant ensuring legal services along with the proper interpretation through different channels, official and certified translators, VRI and OPI interpretations allowing minorities to be able to obtain:

●     Safety by ensuring meaningful access to law enforcement, legal services, and courts to seek remedies, including emergency protective orders;

●     Healthcare services to receive COVID-19 testing, treatment, and care;

●     Economic assistance.

To break through the technology obstacles, many nonprofits and public sector entities have stepped in providing different tools that explain how to navigate various programs, download apps, utilize online portals, and even create email addresses. Some even developed videos and other explanatory materials in language to ensure that linguistically marginalized communities are connected, enabling access to relief such as housing and homelessness programs, unemployment insurance, small business loans, stimulus checks, and other government benefits. Community groups and legal aid organizations have also created videos in multiple non-dominant languages, explaining eviction protections, obtaining restraining orders and other domestic violence resources, and rights to access to healthcare.

In education 

In a changing educational landscape, schools face the challenge of generating inclusive classrooms where students of all backgrounds feel represented and welcomed.  

For example, in North Carolina, the state government has responded to the demand through their Dual Language Immersion programs. There are over 200 programs available in 47 districts, eight charter schools, and six independent schools, which use eight languages: Cherokee, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Spanish, and Urdu. 

These programs are implemented to combat educational inequality and create a multicultural environment beginning in elementary and continuing through high school. The objective is to build a safe space for students to use their mother tongue and appreciate their home culture.  

Dual Language Immersion in schools not only benefits the inclusion of non-native speakers but also provides a multicultural and multi-lingual education for native English speakers. 

In Civil rights: Hmong community in the US 

There are around 300,000 Hmong people in the U.S. The Hmong are an ethnic group that comes from the mountains of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. They have long-term ties to the U.S., ever since they were encouraged to migrate to support the United States during the Vietnam War.  

During the 2020 elections, the Hmong community in Fresno, CA, had difficulty registering to vote even though the government-landing page contained an option to translate the entire page into Hmong. This was due to mistranslation of the information. 

The only reason the turnout of Hmong citizens in the 2020 election was the highest they could remember was thanks to the endeavor of volunteers within the Hmong Innovating Politics organization. This association is also currently helping with registration and navigation of the vaccination process for the Hmong community as the language issues have not been solved. 

In the digital world 

The digital world has provided tools to communicate between different cultures and there are constant advances in AI technology to support translation. For instance, Google’s translation services and real-time translation headphones use artificial intelligence to convert one language to another. However, these tend to be inadequate or fall short since they translate word for word, without context, in very complex languages. In addition, less spoken languages pose a more difficult translation task. 

Another example is seen on websites in the U.S. that are built on an English-first architecture. So even if there is a translation option, the design never looks right and the information tends to be mistranslated. Many social media platforms that host public discourse in the United States also put English first. While content moderation policies from Facebook, Twitter, and others succeeded in filtering out some English-language disinformation, the system often misses inaccurate content when it’s in other languages. 

Overall, steps forward have been made to close the language gap. Nonetheless, there is much to be done and, at Stillman Translations, we are committed to providing the best quality in multicultural services, ultimately helping in the path towards greater language justice