“Language is a city to the building to which every human being brought a stone.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
As large populations of the world have been under stay at home orders and practicing social distancing, many have come to appreciate the innate need for human communication.
The internet has seen multiple advice articles about the power of talking to each other to help us cope with difficult situations. Free video conference apps have helped people stay connected face-to-face, albeit virtually. The ability to maintain social connections has helped many maintain a sense of normalcy, even humanity, during difficult times.
Psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, ABPP, believes that by remaining social during times of uncertainty, we can maintain some control in our lives. Dr. Sullivan is a “huge proponent of creative communication methods in a time of crisis because pulling away from the people we love and trust will only make the situation harder to manage.”
Before the COVID19 crisis, we may not have thought deeply about language. But language is “the primary tool for expression and communication,” according to Dan Jurafsky, the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor in Humanities and chair of the Department of Linguistics in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford. People speak thousands of languages around the world, and each one is unique. According to Jurafsky, studying these languages and how they reflect the culture of those who speak them, “can help us discover what it means to be human.”
For these and other reasons, both the federal and local governments have plans in place to provide access to important public services and information in multiple languages. According to the Migration Policy Institute, ““Language access” means providing Limited English Proficient (LEP) people with reasonable access to the same services as English-speaking individuals. The two main legal bases for language access are Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin, and 2000’s Executive Order 13166, which affirms Title VI’s language access requirement and outlines additional requirements.” This access must be “accurate, timely and effective and…at no cost to the LEP individual.”
If you google the phrase “cities need to have language interpretation service”, you will find may who have a plan to provide this important service to its residents. “The City of Cleveland is committed to providing inclusive and welcoming service to all residents”, for example, and “City of Houston departments that offer direct services to the public are required to submit a language access plan.”
These services can be important even when not in pandemic mode. For example, the California Institute for Local Government notes that providing language access increases the opportunities residents have to participate more fully in civic and public life, a critical component of community building. According to the World Economic Forum, “Stronger communities enable emotional support, access to the resources and networks of other community members, exchange of knowledge and skills that leads to personal and professional development, friendships that add joy to life, and the potential to collaborate with others to generate greater impact in the world.”
Community building is central to both emotional and economic well-being, and language is the driver of community. To build community, people need to understand one another, both literally and figuratively. The need to exchange information and ideas in a language each one understands takes on an even greater sense of urgency during this current health crisis.
Writing for Stat, Shafaq Zia, reports that health officials are racing to provide communities with important information about COVID19. But language divides are likely to put non-English speakers at greater risk. While some health information is being translated into commonly spoken languages including Spanish and Chinese, the U.S. is home to non-English speakers who speak any of hundreds of other languages.
The National League of Cities (NLC) has promoted the importance of making critical health information available in multiple languages as well, writing in CitiesSpeak, “Providing reliable and timely information during crisis management is key to flattening the curve and limiting the community spread of COVID-19, but that cities need to “recognize that the digital divide may hamper people’s ability to access online content” and be prepared to provide this information in other ways, including through active language interpretation and partnering with community organizations who have the infrastructure and experience needed to facilitate broader communication. Cities such as Seattle, Washington; Atlanta, Georgia and San Diego, California, have put various plans in motion to do just that.
Local organizations are doing their part. For example, Healing Hands Ministries of Texas has long understood the importance of communicating with people in their native tongue, especially when delivering medical care. They pride themselves “on providing culturally competent care for everyone” in the community, with more than half of staff speaking multiple languages. Healing Hands augments their staff with CityFront Engage, CityFront’s video language interpretation platform that provides interpretation of over 220 languages, including American Sign Language (ASL). “CityFront Engage is a valuable part of our process,” said Janna Gardner, President, CEO of Healing Hands. “Being able to provide critical information to our community in their native tongue helps Healing Hands fulfill its mission, to provide compassionate and accessible care to all of our neighbors.”
Learn more about how CityFront helps cities, municipalities and community organizations deliver real-time language interpretation services to help build community.
About CityFront: CityFront works with our partners to deliver the first smart city integration platform, powering an artificially intelligent (AI) citizen engagement mobile app that enables citizens to engage with the city intuitively and intelligently. At CityFront we believe being a smart community is not about technology. It’s about how lives are made better. For everyone.