Casey Rich, SHIM Family Center Site Director
Did you know that more than 7% of people in Allegheny County speak a language other than English? Equity is recognizing that all people are not given the same resources and opportunities. When we think about equity, we often focus on systemic racial discrimination, like unfair housing policies. But we would like to focus here on another issue related to inequity: language access. And Welcoming Week is the perfect time to highlight this issue – every step we take toward increasing language access makes Pittsburgh more welcoming to our foreign-born community!
“Everything comes back to language access. You can have challenges with housing, healthcare, or employment. In all of those challenges for life necessities and happiness, language access is a barrier.”- Holly Hickling, Executive Director, The Global Switchboard
Pittsburgh’s South Hills suburbs have the highest concentration of refugees in the Greater Pittsburgh region. Here in the Baldwin Whitehall School District (BWSD), the Asian population grew 477% from 2010-2020, mostly from Asian countries. BWSD students speak 30 different languages and 23% of the district’s elementary-aged students speak Nepali at home.
As a trusted partner of the refugee and immigrant community, we have seen firsthand how language barriers contribute to inequality. Many refugees and immigrants arrive in Pittsburgh with little or no English, and they struggle to access available resources. These new neighbors are full of ambition, but it takes time and perseverance to learn a new language. Not only is the process difficult, but many have to work long hours to support their families with low-paying jobs and are unable to make time for weekly English classes. Additionally, there is a strain on existing resources, and capacity is limited for ESL classes. Many potential students are on a waitlist until more spots open.
In the United States, 11 million people aren’t proficient in English. That’s about 10% of working age adults. “It takes about 350 hours of instruction to reach a functional level of language proficiency, says Johan Uvin, a former official in the Obama administration’s Department of Education, but most students spend only about 140 hours in formal English classes.” (Why Can’t Immigrants Learn English? – The Atlantic)
Transportation can be another barrier, as can childcare needs and isolation. Add to that the trauma that many have experienced in their journeys to America, and finding brain space for language learning can feel overwhelming. When I learned languages in school, it took years to become proficient. Even with my limited proficiency in French from my college study abroad program years ago, it would definitely take me a while to get comfortable functioning day-to-day in France now!
Many foreign-born parents find themselves relying on their children for translation and interpretation. This puts kids in a difficult situation, putting too much pressure on the parent-child relationship. Interpreting for a parent can be uncomfortable, and there may be pieces of information the parent chooses not to share because it’s inappropriate. Some of the most common situations where kids are relied on for interpretation are at doctor’s offices, in schools, and in emergency situations.
All these scenarios require access to interpretation, but many agencies either don’t know they are required or don’t know how to access available interpretation resources. According to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, any agency that accepts government funds is required by law to provide interpretation. We’ve seen great improvements in the adoption of this requirement by local school districts, law enforcement, and medical facilities. However, we’ve noticed that many frontline employees in these agencies are unsure of the protocols and procedures related to interpreter access. (This is exhibited in the many calls we receive from doctor’s offices, social service agencies, and emergency responders who call to ask SHIM staff members what they should do.)
Can you imagine having a discussion with your doctor without being able to describe where you were feeling pain? Or going to a disciplinary hearing for your child at school without understanding what the administrator was telling you? The outcomes of these situations can be serious when high-quality interpretation is not provided. Language access is incredibly important in ensuring that our newest neighbors are heard and receive fair treatment. Good interpretation requires paid interpreters who have been trained in professional conduct and confidentiality. Merely being bilingual does not automatically make someone a good interpreter.
“Interpretation services are good but not great. The problem is the capacity. We have a tough time getting interpretation when we need it, how we need it, and in the language we need.” Simone Vecchio, Family Services Director, Hello Neighbor
Luckily, Pittsburgh has some great organizations who are working to increase access to quality interpretation! Global Wordsmiths is a local interpretation agency that uses a portion of its profits to fund unique social impact programs such as free translation for nonprofits. And we at SHIM participate on the Language Access Committee for the All4All coalition, administered by the Global Switchboard. In response to Allegheny County’s Immigrant Community Blueprint, the committee developed a training aimed to help organizations equip employees with the knowledge and resources they need when interacting with non-English speaking clients.
One of the main goals of this training was to increase language access across the city and suburbs. By training agencies such as police departments, libraries, and service providers, the committee hopes to increase the number of organizations providing quality interpretation services to non-English speakers. As SHIM’s Family Center Site Director, I have led several of these training sessions with local social service providers, including Touching Families, Inc., Jefferson Hospital’s Front Door Initiative team, and Macedonia FACE’s FACT (Family & Community Teaming) providers. Staff who have attended the training have told me they really appreciated the increased awareness and knowledge of new resources. Even more seasoned workers have told me they learned something new in the session and liked having the chance to refresh their skills.
“It’s easy to look at it broadly and feel like it is an uphill battle. We have to look at the individual wins, organization by organization, place by place.” – Simone Vecchio
We’ve also provided cultural training to emergency workers, police, and healthcare professionals who are dedicated to serving the community. This training sparked some very enlightening discussions. For instance, some emergency responders felt unwelcome in Bhutanese homes, not realizing that the cold reaction they received was related to them leaving their shoes on when entering (a typical Asian custom is to remove shoes before entering a house to show respect). Another example is the cultural difference in the definition of emergency. We heard from local emergency responders that newer immigrant and refugee families were often calling 911 when their babies were feverish. We were able to share that many of these families came from countries where babies who became feverish sometimes died from their illnesses because of a lack of facilities and medicines that we in the US can buy easily over the counter. Emergency responders didn’t have context or language to communicate with these families, and jumped to the conclusion that they were calling unnecessarily.
As our society grows to value diversity, equity, and inclusion more deeply, language access must be a piece of this puzzle. Language access gives non-English speakers more independence, helping them to be more self-sufficient. Communication and free expression are core to Americans– our first amendment speaks to that. While English is not the official language of the United States, it is the most dominant. Immigrants and refugees are required to pass the US citizenship test if they have been here for more than seven years and wish to qualify for benefits. They must take this test and the driver’s license test in English. If we are to be truly welcoming to all people, we must help and accommodate non-English speakers’ transitions to language proficiency.
“Every organization that has constituents that don’t speak English, which should be everyone, should provide interpretation.”- Holly Hickling
As the refugee population in Pittsburgh grows, service capacity is not keeping pace. While organizations like ours work to advocate for non-English speakers, anyone can be an ally. Try volunteering with non-English speakers! It changes your awareness of your community, building empathy and compassion for people with different life experiences.
As Fred Rogers once said, “Listening is where love begins: listening to ourselves and then to our neighbors.” We must work to give voice to our neighbors who speak languages unfamiliar to us. Only then have we created a more equitable space for everyone in our community.
If you are looking to access interpreter training for your organization, or are interested in becoming a trainer, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome you to join us on this journey towards equity.