Reopening the United States with Languages

This article “Reopening the United States” was published originally in the Language Testing International Blog

The COVID-19 crisis has caused drastic lockdowns of major sectors of the American economy in order to stop the spread of the virus. As the curve begins to flatten and states are allowing a phased reopening of local economies, we cannot forget how important qualified language professionals will be in helping ensure that the reopening is done effectively and safely.

Small businesses have been especially hit hard by the lockdowns, with much of the pain being felt by minorities. According to the United States Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, minority owned businesses “accounted for more than 50 percent of the two million new businesses started in the United States and created 4.7 million jobs. There are now more than four million minority-owned companies in the United States, with annual sales totaling close to $700 billion.” Over 99.9% of minority owned businesses have fewer than 500 employees.

The COVID-19 crisis has also heavily affected minority communities. African Americans are about 3.5 times more likely than white Americans to die from COVID-19, and Latinos are about two times more likely to die from the virus than white Americans. Even before the epidemic, minorities faced numerous obstacles gaining access to healthcare. As the debate rages on about if and how to reopen the economy, policymakers, health experts, and community activists will need to develop a plan to reopen the economy in a safe manner that limits exposure to the virus, especially among hard-hit minority communities.

The importance of languages to the success of such plans cannot be overstated. With effective language strategies, we can help minority owned businesses and communities recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19 and ensure that the re-opening process does not backfire. Governments, businesses, healthcare facilities, and nonprofits need to ensure that their people and communication strategies can effectively deliver the crucial messages that need to be conveyed. As Nelson Mandela stated, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

We must first remember that English is not the official language of the United States, in fact, there isn’t an official American language. American citizens are free to speak to each other in any language they so choose. Over 35 million American citizens (over 66 million if including non-citizen residents) speak a language other than English at home. Of that population (including non-citizens and residents), over 60% can communicate in English “very well.” That means that about 26 million Americans do not speak English “very well.” These statistics are important to the reopening of the United States, because these Americans also own businesses and live in communities hit hard by COVID-19.

In order to truly understand complex instructions and regulations that deal with healthcare, personal safety, and business, someone would need to speak English “very well.” Peoplenot understanding these instructions and regulations due to a language barrier could put their life, and potentially the lives of others, at risk. Effective government and healthcare recommendations will mean nothing if significant portions of the American population are not able to understand and take them to heart due to a language barrier.

Local leaders, especially, can lead the charge in reopening the United States, because they know their communities better than federal officials in Washington D.C. or even than their own state governments. They can identify the key language groups in their communities and encourage translation of resources and instructions from the government and healthcare providers to those groups. Local minority owned businesses are often the cultural and commercial hubs of the community they serve. For example, growing up in Miami, Florida, I saw that there were numerous Cuban restaurants that acted as informal community spaces and news often spread within the community through these restaurants, and always in Spanish. This happens all across the United States through nearly every community with a concentration on a specific ethnic group.

Failure of translating these resources can lead to harm, but mistranslations and errors in interpreting can also be equally devastating. Language professionals who undertake the efforts to properly communicate with minority businesses and communities need to have a high level of language proficiency in the languages of those communities to faithfully translate complex resources. If there are mistranslations, people can be seriously harmed and legal liabilities may arise. For example, if a minority business owner who does not speak English does not understand instructions for keeping his or her employees safe and an employee gets ill, the business may get shut down, the owner may go to jail, the employee’s health may be put at risk, and other employees may lose their jobs. There are many very real examples of lawsuits filed due to mistranslations, and a death due to a mistranslation is simply an unnecessary death.

That is where Language Testing International (LTI) can help. LTI is the exclusive licensee of ACTFL assessments, widely recognized and accepted by government institutions, healthcare professionals, and businesses across the world. Thus, it is a perfect standard, as those key sectors will need to work together to address language barriers that may affect the reopening of the United States and ensure that their messages are effectively communicated without the risk of liabilities due to mistranslations.

The reopening of the United States will take time, and many lessons will be learned along the way. Special attention will need to be paid to minority businesses and communities to address the devastating effects of COVID-19. Languages are absolutely critical to the success of the reopening, and our leaders will need to ensure that all Americans, including those who are not fluent in English, are truly able to understand the messages needed to guide us to recovery. Partnering with LTI would be an effective strategy to achieve these goals.