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Language Access Opens a World of New Opportunities

Increasing language access for clients and staff can expand your customer base and build trust with a diverse workforce

Back Article Jun 7, 2022 By William Glasser

This story is part of our June 2022 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

A lot of us remember that locally famous Time magazine article from 2002 that named Sacramento as the most diverse city in the U.S. Taking advantage of this rich linguistic and cultural diversity should be a key element of any local business’s overall strategy to leverage new sales and provide follow-up support to those sales. Understanding and leveraging this diversity also plays a key role in employee recruiting and retention.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau, almost 33 percent of Sacramento County households speak a language other than English at home. Of the individuals in those households, 13 percent do not speak English very well. Looking more broadly to statewide demographics, nearly 8 million Californians (19 percent) report speaking English “less than very well.”  

Overlooked opportunities

The vast number of people with limited English proficiency living here represent an excellent opportunity to open your products and services to a new group of consumers you may have overlooked due to language barriers. Emails, websites, printed materials, social media and videos can all be translated and localized to resonate with the culture, history, taste and customs of potential consumers who are ready to buy and prefer receiving information in their own language.

Showing respect, building trust

Many businesses are struggling to find qualified employees and retain the high-value personnel they already have. Employees with limited English proficiency represent a growing percentage of human resources in industries including hospitality, manufacturing, food service, construction, transportation, agriculture and beyond. Imagine the advantage you would have over competitors who didn’t think to write their online job posting in Punjabi or Simplified Chinese. Imagine if your employee manual could be emailed to a new hire in perfect Ukrainian, or your Cal/OSHA mandated training was delivered as a Spanish language video sent to your employee’s phone.

Employees will feel respected and valued when they receive important company information in their preferred languages. Not only is language access a trust-building tool; it is also mandated by state and federal law, such as Title VI of the Federal 1964 Civil Rights Act and California’s Dymally–Alatorre Bilingual Services Act.

Faulty translation methods and their risks

Typically, a business owner reacts to language barriers much the same way they would on vacation in a foreign country.  What’s the fastest, simplest way to get my point across? One way is to find someone nearby who you think speaks the language. Another is using machine translation such as Google Translate to muddle through a verbal exchange. Both methods risk inaccurate results. 

Utilizing somebody in the workplace who speaks another language may seem like the quick and easy answer to interpreting or translating. However, it may make matters worse. It is important to consider that your bilingual co-worker may be familiar but not fluent in the foreign language. Many heritage speakers (those raised in monolingual non-English households) acquired their second language skills at an early age but never received formal education nor any certified testing in the language. What’s more, if you do rely on bilingual employees for this service, do they get extra pay? Do they receive extra time and accommodation to complete their ongoing tasks if they are taken away to provide language access services?

Apps and websites seem like the next best option for translation. But while speech-to-speech translation apps have improved over the years, they are prone to making odd mistakes, which could be embarrassing in the best case scenario and outright dangerous in the worst. 

Health care institutions have long known this, as lives can hang in the balance on the turn of a phrase or on incomplete or inaccurate medical instruction. Patient safety is central to the health care mission, and without professional language access, lifesaving and technically complex treatment plans cannot be meaningfully understood. 

How to increase language access for employees and clients

There are several approaches you can take toward improving language access for both your customer base and your diverse staff. For employers with staff that speak limited English, you may want to offer tailored English language classes that focus on vocabulary and phrases germane to what needs to be communicated at the workplace. For industries such as health care that could benefit from full-time personnel, hiring an on-staff interpreter might be the best choice. Interpreting agencies also offer expert language assistance services that can be delivered in person, over the phone, or via any device as video remote interpreting.

“While it may be easier to think of the world as English speaking only, there are many relationships (and bottom lines) that can be remarkably improved through increased language access.”

William Glasser, president and founder, Language World, Inc.

While it may be easier to think of the world as English speaking only, there are many relationships (and bottom lines) that can be remarkably improved through increased language access. Investing in language access can help your business connect with California’s growing limited English proficient consumers and employees.

William Glasser is the president and founder of Language World, an interpreting and translation solutions provider. He has over 20 years of language industry experience. Learn more at languageworld.com.

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