How to bridge the language gap

Daniel Elenes

A book open in front of a mapMany kinds of people make up a community, and often times a significant proportion of the population speaks a language other than English. For a community dialogue to be inclusive, it's important to offer interpretation services. Simultaneous interpretation usually is the best option, allowing speakers of all languages to understand the presentation or conversation as it is happening.

If you choose to offer interpretation services, set up the space so people are looking at each other instead of at the interpreter. Ideally, participants will use not only the translation coming from their headset, but also the tone of voice, facial expressions, and hand gestures of the speaker to capture the essence of the conversation. This combination of verbal/visual communication provides a more complete understanding of others’ stories or ideas than words alone.

Before starting the dialogue session, the interpreter should introduce him or herself and explain why interpretation is important.  Describe the process of simultaneous translation at the start – it is likely that some participants have not experienced this before. It's also important to explain logistical details such as how to adjust the volume and find the right channel.  

About 80% of an interpreter’s effectiveness rests in how he or she sets up the space; the rest of the work rests on the quality of the interpretation. Without an orientation to how the interpretation process will work, people may have questions that will interrupt the flow of the dialogues.

In your dialogue you may choose to require everyone who doesn't speak more than one language to wear a headset, including English-only speakers. Since it's common practice for only those who speak a language other than English to wear the headsets, it's critical that the space be set up in an inclusive manner. Rather than make this a requirement solely for non-English speakers, having monolingual English speakers also wear headsets levels the playing field. Connecting interpretation to social justice will help people understand that it isn't just about translating, but also about allowing all to fully participate and express themselves in a way they find most comfortable. .

Hand signals can help the interpreter(s) and participants communicate without interrupting the translation process. Here are some examples of hand signals:

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