All too often, conversations about language access focus on languages that are spoken most widely throughout the country — think languages like Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog or your local threshold languages. And while it’s certainly important to cater your language access plan to speakers of these languages, it’s also important to factor in the unique considerations that have to be made when providing language access to speakers of less widely spoken Indigenous languages as well.
While an organization might have all the tools and resources needed to provide services to a Spanish speaker with limited English proficiency (LEP), chances are that its language access services for, say, Q’anjob’al speakers, are much more limited.
And that’s a big problem — Indigenous people from Latin America make up a large proportion of immigrant families in shelters, meaning organizations that regularly work with immigrants and refugees must be prepared to offer their services in Indigenous languages. According to a 2021 report, roughly 62% of immigrant families in shelters were from Guatemala, 30% of whom spoke an Indigenous language like Q’anjob’al or Nahuatl.
Many organizations and government agencies across the country are struggling to meet the needs of Indigenous language speakers with LEP, oftentimes in spite of an otherwise well-informed language access plan. Our country simply needs more training and certification programs to create opportunities for bilingual speakers of Indigenous languages to prepare themselves for a career as an interpreter or translator.
More funding toward the creation of such programs is one long-term solution, but in the meantime, there are several other things we can do now to fill the gap. At Avantpage, we’ve worked hard to improve language access services for Indigenous languages at organizations — here are a few considerations and approaches your organization ought to keep in mind when providing language access services to Indigenous communities.
4 Strategies to Improve Language Access for Indigenous Languages
As a result of centuries’ worth of repression, Indigenous languages are not particularly well-understood outside of their speaker communities and as such, providing language services in these languages is a bit more of a challenge than languages like Spanish or Chinese, for instance.
The number of immigrants speaking languages Indigenous to the Americas is bound to grow in coming years. Immigration – and the ability to support new immigrant communities – is a critical force driving the United States’ economy and growth. And in the coming years, we can expect to see even more Indigenous people of Central and South America immigrating here in response to climate change and political instability – it’s important that we are able to serve them in their language to ease things up as they transition to life in a new, unfamiliar country.
To enhance language access for Indigenous languages, organizations must adopt strategies that address the unique situation of these languages.
Identify Language Service Providers Before You Need Their Services
Proactive planning is essential for any language access services, but perhaps especially so for Indigenous languages, as it can be harder or more expensive to procure services in these languages at the last minute.
You may want to consider setting up contracts in advance through a request for proposal (RFP) process, a less formal request for inquiry (RFI), or even research to find out what “piggy-back” contracts are already in place that you can leverage. This way, you can establish a relationship with language service providers (LSPs) who are well-qualified to fulfill your needs and differentiate contracts based on the services you need (perhaps one provider is better suited for threshold languages but another is specialized in indigenous languages).
During the contractual design, you might consider multiple vendors for added resources, or even separating your RFP/RFI requests based on language or modality (onsite, remote, translation). This can better ensure the right organization can qualify to submit their services to the bid, expanding your own pool of resources and options.
Know the different services offered — ideally opt for an agency that can provide in-person interpreting, but if it’s necessary phone or video interpreting is also a viable service, and a critical back-up option to have available. Low resource languages often encounter more difficulty in coverage. Back-up options, like the use of relay interpreting (3 interpreters across 3 languages), can help close the gap.
A trusted LSP may be able to help you connect with and onboard freelance interpreters and translators as well. Additionally, if you prefer to gather a pool of freelancers to provide their services as needed (instead of or in addition to working with a larger agency), court websites can be a useful tool for finding potential freelancers who work in the language you’re looking for.
Hire Staff Who are Proficient in Indigenous Languages
While bilingual staff are not a replacement for professional interpreters, they can be helpful in situations where an interpreter is not immediately available. Bilingual staff can communicate with individuals who have LEP and help them access your services as needed.
Hiring bilingual staff is not sufficient on its own — it’s important to conduct a thorough linguistic assessment to ensure that they’re able to perform all the necessary functions of the job in the target language. Training and placement are also crucial — if you have multiple office locations, it will be most useful to place bilingual staff in locations where they are most likely to use the language. Conduct demographic research to see which languages are in highest demand at specific branches so you know where to place bilingual staff.
It’s also a good idea to maintain a bilingual staff directory — this has been used among state and local government offices as a back up option, and it serves well to facilitate internal access to diverse language skills. However, it’s imperative to document staff qualifications and provide guidance on when to utilize bilingual staff based on their expertise, ensuring effective language support.
Partner with Community-Based Organizations
Community-based organizations (CBOs) play a pivotal role in addressing the unique needs of local Indigenous and immigrant communities. Partnering with these organizations, which represent community needs, can enhance outreach and build trust with local immigrant populations and Indigenous-language speakers. CBOs can offer insights into local needs and facilitate a more profound understanding of historically underserved communities.
For more information on how and why you should partner with CBOs, take a look at our guide to partnering with CBOs.
Use Language Identification Posters, I-Speak Cards and Other Tools for Language Identification
Of course, you can’t provide adequate language access services to somebody if you’re unable to identify their language.
All too often, Indigenous languages of Latin America are mistaken for Spanish due to a general lack of awareness of these languages. And while it can certainly be difficult to identify the language somebody else is speaking if you have no prior knowledge of it, there are a handful of tools that can help.
Language identification posters, I-Speak cards, and phonetic pronunciation guides aid frontline staff in correctly identifying languages. Make sure the tools you’re using for language identification include several Indigenous languages so that you’re able to identify the languages that are in demand.
Training programs for staff can also enhance awareness of linguistic diversity, mitigating the risk of mislabeling languages. In non-urgent situations, it’s worthwhile to suggest alternatives to the individual, such as rescheduling an appointment for a date when an on-site interpreter will be available.
Demand for language access in Indigenous languages is bound to rise — be sure your organization is just as prepared to offer services in Indigenous languages like Mixtec or Nahuatl as it is to offer services in English or Spanish. Here are a few strategies you can employ to improve language access for these languages:
- Identify language service providers before you need their services
- Hire staff who are proficient in indigenous languages
- Partner with community-based organizations
- Use language identification posters, I-Speak cards and other tools for language identification
At Avantpage, we’re acutely aware of the unique considerations that must be made when providing language access for Indigenous languages. To learn more about how our interpreting, translation, and localization services can fit into your language access plan for Indigenous languages, contact us today at (530) 750-2040 or [email protected].