As a social justice organization, Linguistic Justice’s mission is based on both philosophical and tangible principles. What do we mean by that? To understand our work, you need to understand our philosophy: preserving the dignity of all persons. Without this philosophical basis, our vision and recommendations fall flat. However, much of our work focuses on tangible and practical steps you can take to aid in communication with others, mainly when you each speak a different primary language.
We are excited to be focusing on how language rights save lives as part of Global Language Advocacy Day (GLAD), an initiative of the Global Coalition on Language Rights. As coalition members, this article aims to briefly examine how language accessibility impacts tangible life outcomes in three ways: access to justice, health care, and emergency preparedness.
Access to Justice
Over the last few years, it has been impossible to miss the media attention given to hate crimes and race-related bias. And a great deal of data shows that this uptick is genuine and not driven by news ratings. While Black Americans continue to be the most targeted group in the United States, the COVID-19 Pandemic instigated unprecedented violence against Asian Americans. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, a nonpartisan research and policy center, revealed an increase of 164% from the first quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2021.
In May 2022, the DOJ released information on its efforts to “Address and Prevent Hate Crimes and Hate Incidents.” The measures are primarily tied to the previous year’s COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. Of particular note in this memo was the announcement that Ana Paula Noguez Mercado will join the DOJ as its first-ever Language Access Coordinator. As it states in the notice, “Language access is a key barrier to the reporting of hate crimes, and the Language Access Coordinator will help improve knowledge, use, and expansion of the Department of Justice’s language resources.” Many immigrant communities already deeply distrust police and other public institutions due to experiences in their country of origin, and unaddressed language barriers only increase the problem in the US. More comprehensive and effective language access strategies in policing and justice departments nationally is an excellent first step towards improving reporting and better allocating safety resources to non-English speaking communities.
Improving language access in law enforcement systems will result in better reporting, leading to fewer instances of violence and lives saved.
Despite having no official language, English is the de facto language of the United States. And while government policies require equitable access to essential services such as health care, language barriers continue to negatively impact the care that non-dominant language speakers (basically anyone for whom English is not their first language) receive. An article in Diabetes Spectrum put it this way: “The relationship between the ability to speak English and quality of health care received has been established by research linking limited English proficiency with less care-seeking, diminished quality of and access to health services, poorer health outcomes, and even death.” Without an improvement in language access resources, minority language speakers are likely to continue with poorer health outcomes.
Sadly, the aforementioned diminished quality and access to health care are not just in situations in which small numbers of people in the United States speak that language. Nearly 16% of the United States population, approximately 53 million people, speak Spanish. While a portion of that population is genuinely bilingual, the majority is Spanish-dominant and would be considered Limited English Proficient, LEP, by government agencies. Despite the large quantity of native Spanish speakers in the United States, they too are victims of poorer health outcomes and limited access to health care. These poorer outcomes have become more apparent in Medicare circles, where Hispanic seniors find it more difficult to compare plans, equitably choose additional coverage options, and even have their questions answered in their native language.
A lack of diversity in organizations serving diverse populations is a key part of the problem. Both insurers and healthcare providers frequently lack a workforce that mirrors the individuals they serve. This lack of diversity creates not only a language barrier but a cultural one as well. And when individuals and families fail to see people like them in healthcare settings, they are less likely to seek healthcare and trust it. This has become a big problem in hospice care, with Black and Latino patients being far less likely to choose the service despite the quality of life and family relief it can provide.
For health care outcomes in the United States to truly be equitable, the entire system will need more robust language access policies and more multicultural staff.
Emergency Preparedness and Response
Given the reach of media broadcasting and advances in weather technology, we are in a better situation than any previous generation to prepare for and respond to natural disasters and other emergencies. Yet disseminated information is only effective if it reaches the affected population in the appropriate language. In 2016, the DOJ released “Tips and Tools for Reaching Limited English Proficient Communities in Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery .”Right in the first paragraph highlights the life-altering consequences of a language access plan: “If LEP individuals are not able to access disaster information in a language they can understand, the consequences can be deadly.” Therefore, to protect all people living in the United States, information must be available in languages other than English.
Of course, appropriate language information is just as important after the event as it is before happening. This was made very clear in the aftermath of Typhoon Merbok, which hit Alaska’s west coast in September 2022. The federal government needed to disseminate information on how to apply for recovery assistance in multiple indigenous languages; however, the translation agency they hired produced work that was not just poor quality but unintelligible. What was delivered and disseminated was an insult to native Alaskan peoples and eventually had to be redone by an Alaskan-based agency. But this caused delays in much-needed funding for citizens impacted by the typhoon.
In so many situations, the ability to communicate effectively is truly a matter of life and death. In the United States, nearly a quarter of the population (approximately 22%) does not speak English at home. For some 73 million people who speak a non-dominant language, health, and safety are negatively impacted by the lack of meaningful language access measures in the organizations that are supposed to serve them. Language rights save lives. It is high time these rights are taken seriously at every level of government and healthcare.