Communicating for Multilingual Communities
* data from data.census.gov
For a growing number of Americans, English is not their primary language. Additionally, more than five million households are limited in English proficiency, increasing the need for multilingual communications that better serve these communities.
We sat down with Richfield Public Schools’ Jennifer Valley, Director of Marketing and Communications, and Rosa Rubio, Translation and Engagement Coordinator, to learn more about how they’ve successfully provided communications in languages that serve their communities.
Should I Translate?
The easiest answer to this question is “yes, because it’s the right thing to do.” When families can engage with their child’s school in the language they understand, the student does better. Families want to be partners in their child’s education; schools should work to remove barriers, including language barriers.
“One of my first conferences, it was this father that had never had the chance to speak with the child’s teacher and understand besides the basic signaling and smiling back, and that’s it,” said Rosa. “But I just remember like it was yesterday, he just grabbed my hands at the end of the meeting and said, ‘bless you.’”
For districtwide mass communications, consider these four factors when determining if it is reasonable to provide translation or interpretation services:
- Number or proportion of recipients who are not proficient in English.
- Frequency of communications.
- Importance of communication.
- Resources available to the recipient.
When it comes to written translation, Federal guidance from HUD recommends that written translations be provided “in each language that constitutes 5% or 1,000 persons, whichever is less, of the population of eligible persons to be served or likely to be encountered.” So, if 500 students in a district of 10,000 are limited in English proficiency and primarily speak Spanish, the district should communicate in Spanish.
What Should be Translated?
“We have our entire weather protocol for all these different scenarios already pre-translated by sentence, so I can pull the sentences together,” said Jennifer. “Unless it’s a very unique situation that has not been thought of and pre-translated, it allows me to copy and paste it all together and know that it’s 95 to 100% accurate.”
For example, some key weather-related phrases you may want pre-translated include:
- [Your School Name] will be closed tomorrow due to inclement weather.
- [Your School Name] will start 2 hours late tomorrow due to inclement weather.
- [Your School Name] will close 2 hours early today due to inclement weather.
In addition, anything that might be considered “vital” should be translated. hud.gov interprets “vital” as “any document critical for ensuring meaningful access” to activities and programs. This might include enrollment and course registration information, parent-teacher conferences, and crisis communications.
Translating for Social Media
Should we translate content for social media or have separate pages for communities that speak other languages? Having social media channels that are inclusive of all members of your community helps ensure that all are welcome.
Social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter now offer automatic translation based on your language settings and the user’s language settings.
What about videos on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter? Translated closed captioning using a service such as rev.com is a way to ensure ADA compliance as well as let your speaker’s voice be heard. If you are using text in video or photos, ensure that there is an alternative that can be translated and is accessible for those with visual impairments.
Ensuring an Effective Plan
This Language Access Plan Worksheet from the Health Resources & Services Administration can guide your creation of an access plan.
An effective plan might include:
- What translation or interpretation services are available?
- How can families and staff access these services?
- What resources are available for front office staff who may answer calls or emails or interact in person with families and community members with limited English proficiency?
Equity policies, regulations, and protocols can guide your plan and give a framework for your district’s commitment to ensuring that your most important communications are accessible to all.
Richfield Public Schools’ Equity Policy outlines their commitment to ensuring their work is student- and family-focused and eliminating barriers that can interfere with each individual’s opportunity to excel.
Writing for All
“Over the years, I’ve gotten much better about writing in a way that is clearer to start,” says Jennifer Valley. “I want our messages to be readable at about a seventh- or eighth-grade level, not only to make translations easier and to make sure it’s understood by families whose native language is not English, but also for our English-speaking families who are at a lower reading level, or just want to scan it for the details.”
Writing simply allows users to (from plainlanguage.gov)
- Find what they need
- Understand what they find
- Use what they find to meet their needs
Using plain language means avoiding idioms and colloquialisms that non-native English speakers may not understand. For example, will “under the weather” in communication about COVID be understood when translated? This list from Education First can help translate idioms into plain language.
- Data from the U.S. Census Bureau can help you identify the languages in your community.
- These Frequently Asked Questions on Legal Requirements to Provide Language Access Services from the Migration Policy Institute can answer some basic questions.
Published on: January 9, 2023