The cover of Ingrid Piller’s 2016 book, Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice, features an interesting twist on the iconic image of blindfolded Lady Justice holding her scales while wearing earmuffs because she “would have to be deaf as well as blind to be truly impartial […] As long as Lady Justice can hear, she will be able to form a view of the speaker’s socioeconomic status, their level of education, their ethnicity, their gender, their age, and their country of origin. […] Without earmuffs Lady Justice’s blindfold is, in fact, pointless.” (p. 4) This powerful metaphor brings into sharp focus the issue of language access as a human rights issue. It shows very eloquently that a failure to consider linguistic access in delivering services can be equated to discrimination.
Access to information and services beyond language barriers plays a fundamental part in ensuring access to justice, health and safety for both individuals and communities, and contributes to equal opportunities and civic participation. In our world shaped by complex migration patterns, linguistic diversity is the norm, yet it poses complex challenges from the point of view of linguistic access. At the same time, it opens up a world of opportunities allowing an unprecedented wealth of information and experiences to be shared across groups that were once worlds apart, yet are now meeting in today’s multicultural, multilingual cities.
But how is it possible to overcome language barriers, ensuring access to information and services, while also embracing this diversity that is as inevitable as it is welcome and enriching?
Currently, there are three major ways in which the issue of language as a barrier to information and services is being addressed in Canada. Professional language services are used to overcome the language barrier for newcomers in many settings, including courts, hospitals, and various social services. It is a solution that works well in the short term, as it responds to an immediate need. However, this is done mainly in a reactive way, with no legislation mandating the provision of these services (with very few exceptions), which leaves organizations to create their own policies and devise their own approaches. This often comes with funding shortages, lack of information on best practices, and multiple other challenges.
The second, more permanent solution to linguistic access is language acquisition – offering newcomers the opportunity to learn the official language. However, language acquisition is a complex process and current ESL programs have their limitations and results are mixed at best.
A third possible solution to the issue of language access is offering the various services in the native languages of clients by employing multilingual staff. This solution works well in certain settings, where providing the service in a language other than an official language is, in fact, possible, and to the extent that the organization is in a position to hire staff that speaks the languages of their major client groups. But even this approach is not a perfect one, as no organization can possibly be prepared to accommodate the hundreds of languages spoken in Canada today.
Countless factors, from political climate to practical and financial considerations, interrelate in complex ways, contributing to a constantly shifting playground of problems and challenges, as well as promising solutions and best practices. But what is often neglected in conversations and circles advocating for linguistic access as a human right, is an emphasis on the tremendous opportunities that are also inherent in this picture.
Technology is constantly opening new doors, making language related services more accessible and affordable. There is a cost involved in offering interpretation, translation and language learning to newcomers, but this is not only the inevitable price our society pays for the benefits of globalization and the freedom of movement. These are all employment opportunities that come with economic advantages. When efforts are made to remove language barriers and ensure access to information and services, this leads to an increased sense of safety, well-being and belonging. This is beneficial not only for those who receive the services but for everyone else because when individuals thrive, communities thrive, and we all benefit collectively.
Linguistic diversity should not be seen merely as the cause of communication barriers and challenges. It is also a source of wealth, creativity and economic opportunities. The road towards overcoming the challenges, while taking advantage of the opportunities, starts with the awareness that these issues affect us all along with an honest and open dialogue and the will to engage with each other and take action.
This is why we are launching this newsletter that will bring together the most current topics in this field. We are hoping it will raise awareness, spark conversations, raise questions and inspire action and innovation.
Veronica Costea, Translation & Special Projects Manager, Toronto, Ontario, June 01, 2017