Our cities are as diverse as ever, and most local governments are responding by becoming increasingly inclusive. But even the best-intentioned local governments found themselves scrambling at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which sparked frequent changes to local guidelines. In the process, one of the jarring inclusion gaps that further revealed itself during the last year was language accessibility.
How local governments communicated public health announcements and updates regarding access to services quickly became inaccessible to many. As cities begin to build back, we now have the opportunity to rethink how we communicate with our diverse communities to foster more participation.
Communication is the backbone of transparency
Clear communication is vital to getting more residents involved and transparency is key to keeping them engaged. In addition to having a plan for when to communicate with residents, the “how” must also be developed to account for language access. As Root Policy Research put it, “Language access planning is an important part of creating equitable, culturally dynamic, and welcoming communities.”
Here are 6 impactful communication tips to level up your language accessibility:
1. Understand your locality
Cities around the world are made up of multilingual communities and in some instances countries are officially multilingual, such as India where 22 languages are recognized in the constitution or South Africa which has 11 official languages. In other countries, long histories of migration have contributed to a diverse, multilingual society, such as in the United States where at least 350 languages are spoken.
So what does that mean for democracy and community engagement? You need to know who you’re trying to reach. Find out which languages are most commonly spoken in your community to identify how to meet the language needs of your population. Census data can help with this and while language access policies will look different for each local government, the Institute for Local Government’s Language Access Checklist is a good starting point to build out your plan.
2. Translate materials and meetings
Provide translated materials about services, programs, and benefits enrollment to ensure more equitable access. For elections, this would also include things like voter guides, instructions on registering to vote, and a breakdown of day-of procedures. Finally, consider how to make your meetings and events more accessible – can you budget for simultaneous interpretation or include closed captioning for virtual events? Can you include a sign language interpreter? If not, can you adjust your agenda to include formats such as language-specific breakout sessions for discussions?
3. Go beyond translation when possible
Cultural interpretation rather than literal translation can go a long way in making people feel more comfortable and engaged. Partner with interpreters and bilingual staff for more engaging simultaneous translation of public meetings and to advise you on the best ways to communicate certain information in a culturally appropriate way.
4. Engage local community leaders
Build the capacity of your residents to become local community leaders. Citizen academies, leadership training programs, and opportunities to serve on local commissions – offered in residents’ native language or interpreted if needed – help empower more of your community to get involved long-term, and to build buy-in from others as trusted community members.
5. Be flexible
Getting inclusion right takes time and iteration, and that is certainly also true for language access. Be ready to make adjustments along the way, and to consider factors that may not have come up previously. For instance, illiteracy is still a major problem for many of the world’s democracies, and about 12% of the world is illiterate. In communities with higher illiteracy rates, written materials won’t suffice and you’ll need to consider how to communicate messages using more visual tools such as infographics.
6. Share what you’re doing
In the process of improving your language accessibility, don’t forget to communicate what you’re doing. Post signs about meetings with translation services in multi-lingual neighborhoods or add notices to your website about access to services such as interpretation so that your residents know about the changes and how they can participate.
Language access for the future
Our communities are growing, changing, and becoming increasingly multilingual. It’s time for our democratic institutions to meet people where they are so that our local governments can gather more representative community feedback, increase civic participation, and engage communities more efficiently.