Wednesday, January 20, 2021

What’s the difference between language access and language justice? Probably like most people, I had not given much thought to language access as an issue of justice. Recently, however, my colleague, Stan, and I had an opportunity to learn firsthand what language justice looks like in action.


As a native English speaker I am rarely, if ever, in the language minority in the US. While overseas, I experienced living in a second language – one I spoke at best with a toddler’s vocabulary. It was challenging in all kinds of ways that I did not expect, both intellectually and emotionally. I gained a deep respect for people living and working in languages not their own. 


Here at home, I’ve participated in many events that involved interpreters for other participants, both in-person and more recently on Zoom. I’ve known for a long time that it was important to bring in interpreters but have only recently considered this in the context of valuing inclusion and recognizing what we have to gain when we enable individuals to bring their full selves to participate authentically.


Stan and I are working with Resources for Resilience and Lucy Daniels Center to evaluate their implementation of the Circle of Security Parenting curriculum with families and caregivers across North Carolina. Honoring their own commitment to language justice, Resources for Resilience hired and paid for the services of Cenzontle, a language justice co-op in Asheville, North Carolina to help us facilitate a bi-lingual focus group. Cenzontle’s staff ensured that the process went smoothly, starting with a pre-event tutorial to bring us up to speed on all the moving parts required for simultaneous interpreting in a virtual environment. The focus group went very smoothly with no more technical glitches than usual for an online event. Cenzontle’s two interpreters did a beautiful job of seamlessly interpreting the words, emotions, and body language as participants were speaking. Simultaneous interpretation allowed for the conversation to flow more naturally than consecutive interpreting, a critical component for equitable participation. If you have to wait for your words to be interpreted for the rest of the group, you might feel hesitant to fully express your thoughts out of concern for slowing down the process. 


At the end, the one attendee who used the interpretation took a moment to thank us for making her full participation in the focus group possible. She was amazed and grateful that we had gone to such lengths when only one person out of 15 needed the interpretation. As she described her joy in being able to understand what everyone was saying, in being able to express her own thoughts fully without searching for the right words in a second language, in being able to be an equal contributor to the discussion, we began to understand the true meaning of language justice. 


In our debriefing, Stan and I explored together what we had learned from the experience. Having interpreters was more than a mechanism to understand someone speaking another language; it set the tone for the focus group. It showed that we are committed to full inclusion, to ensuring everyone has a voice, to listening for understanding and hearing everything that people want to share. It enabled participants to bring their full selves to the conversation. Having all members of the group speaking with more ease and comfort deepened the data we were able to draw from the focus group. This, in turn, will make our evaluation of the program richer, reflecting our commitment to equity in evaluation. From the feedback we have received, we also know that the other participants appreciated hearing from their colleague in her own words and that the interpretation improved their experience in the focus group. 


As always, we are still learning how to improve our processes, including integrating this technology with the way we work. Moving forward, we are committed to ensuring that people have the opportunity not just to do what they can but to have what they need to do their best.