Ideasroom

Why languages matter

As we emerge from the last of lockdown and begin to look beyond our borders again, let’s not forget the vital role language skills play in strengthening our economic, political and cultural connections to the rest of the world, writes Sally Hill.

This week is Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa – Samoan Language Week – and despite the restrictions of Level 2 many people are finding innovative ways to celebrate the richness of our third most widely-spoken language.

Others will be aware that this is also International Languages Week, “an opportunity to showcase, learn, and promote the diverse languages and cultures in our schools, communities, and nation”.

Yet, with our borders closed to the rest of the world, some might question the relevance of international languages to the challenges we currently face. And unfortunately within those borders even the importance of all our official languages is not universally recognised. But the Covid-19 crisis has in fact vividly demonstrated the ongoing and increasing importance of translation, multilingualism and intercultural communication in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Within our unique bicultural setting, more than 160 languages are spoken. Over the past couple of decades, New Zealand’s linguistic and cultural diversity has increased to the point that we are now one of a small number of nations identified as “superdiverse”.

This means fast access to accurate and up-to-date official information in multiple languages about a threat like Covid-19 is essential, particularly for potentially vulnerable communities.

The World Health Organisation has long noted that “[l]anguage can be a barrier to accessing relevant and high quality health information and delivering appropriate health care”. Numerous studies have shown poor intercultural communication in healthcare settings can have devastating consequences, and – especially in stressful situations – even people relatively fluent in the dominant language benefit from access to clear, reliable health information in their own language.

While minority language communities in the UK lamented the lack of translations of crucial health information, and in the US the Trump administration ordered immigration judges to remove bilingual Spanish and English Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coronavirus advice posters from court buildings, New Zealand saw rapid moves across a number of agencies and organisations to ensure speakers of languages other than English were able to access key Covid-related information.

Surely the most widely visible expressions of the need for effective communication across languages were the New Zealand Sign Language interpreters of the daily briefings by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

Ardern praised their work providing crucial information to the 4000–5000 New Zealanders who are deaf as “an exceptional feat ... at a vital time when we need information to reach as many New Zealanders as possible”. She went on to express the nation’s “gratitude for the incredible role and important work that they do”.

The chief executive of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori – the Māori Language Commission – Ngahiwi Apanui praised te reo translators across the country for “working hard to ensure our communities who speak te reo are informed and able to stay home, save lives and fight Covid-19”, and the Commission released a vocabulary list to support translators and others communicating in te reo to combat the virus.

But our official languages were not the only ones in which official coronavirus information was rapidly disseminated. The New Zealand government Covid-19 site has information in 28 languages, and the Ministry for Pacific Peoples produced a series of videos and other resources in nine Pacific languages.

The Office of Ethnic Communities provides videos with helpline information and information for staying safe in 26 languages, and links to additional multilingual information, including specific information for Muslim communities about Ramadan during Covid-19 in multiple languages.

The New Zealand Red Cross provided community-sourced translations of important Ministry of Health information in 17 further languages. Community groups, voluntary organisations and embassies worked to make sure their communities had access to accurate information in their own languages.

While there is work to be done to assess linguistic minorities’ access to the many translations produced during this period, it is heartening to see New Zealand moving towards greater linguistic inclusiveness in crisis communication – something we haven’t always aspired to in the past and that certainly hasn’t been a priority for many Anglophone countries during the pandemic.

Of course, clear and effective translations depend upon clear and effective communication in the source language. New Zealand was at an advantage in that the Government and in particular the Prime Minister have been internationally recognised for the quality and effectiveness of their pandemic communications.

Nevertheless, the fast transmission of those messages into multiple languages shows we need to include translators and interpreters among the essential workers whose efforts during the pandemic deserve our thanks and appreciation.

Sadly, our linguistic and cultural diversity as a population is not matched by an equivalent diversity across a number of key professions. We need to make sure our education and health systems are equipped to support our increasingly multilingual and culturally diverse population by fostering and recognising people who can communicate effectively across languages and cultures.

And as we emerge from the last of lockdown and begin to look beyond our borders again, let’s not forget the vital role their skills play in strengthening our economic, political and cultural connections to the rest of the world.

In the meantime, ia manuia le Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa, and happy International Languages Week.

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