Breaking Through Language Barriers with Technology

If you’re reading this, chances are you have the ability to read, understand, and act on the estimated 54% of web content that exists in English. For a growing number of Americans, though, the information they’re searching for may be online — they just can’t read it.

According to the 2010 Census, more than 20% of individuals in the US speak a language other than English at home, and of those, less than half say they don’t speak English very well. That’s about 25 million people with limited proficiency in English – nearly 6 million in California alone. Spanish-speakers account for about 66%, followed by Chinese (6%) and Vietnamese-speakers (3%).

The growing language diversity in America has important implications for how nonprofits engage with, and serve, our communities. Knowledge is power, and speakers of languages other than English face a range of challenges in accessing information many of us take for granted – about medical care, housing, employment, educational opportunities, and more. And as the Migration Policy Institute found, linguistically isolated families – households in which no one over 14 speaks English – often have disproportionately high rates of poverty.

How can nonprofits use technology to reach, and better serve, the language preferences of multilingual communities and English language learners?

Develop a multilingual web presence

If your program serves multiple language communities, making sure your website is written in plain English is the first step. Starting with content in plain language will improve readability for all users, regardless of literacy, and save on translation costs. Most plain language documents have about 40% fewer words than the original.

Next, focus on translating key information about your programs and services – including how individuals can contact you. Some programs, such as, provide a fully translated Spanish mirror site for their target community. If you don’t have the resources to translate your entire website or social media presence, focus on the content that has the most value for your community and provide a comparable, high-quality user experience. For example, LawHelpMN provides a dedicated portal with legal rights resources that are particularly important to Minnesota’s large Somali-speaking community. The core navigation has been translated into Somali, and the portal provides a dedicated search engine for Somali content.

Cultural competency is another important factor. Idioms and word meanings can vary regionally. Field testing and community feedback is the best way to ensure your content is both linguistically accurate and culturally competent for your target community.

In general, machine translation tools should be avoided unless the content can be post-edited by a qualified translator. While Google Translate might be great for tourists and casual use, the quality of the translation is unreliable, and language access experts generally advise against it. Would you rely on a machine translation to understand medical information, or go to court in a foreign country?

Use multimedia and interactive tools to facilitate communication

Regardless of a user’s language capacity, videos and other visual tools can help distill complex information, facilitate learning, and tell compelling stories. The Northwest Justice Project created a series of legal literacy videos in Spanish on safety, economic security, and public benefits issues. The videos use plain language principles — from the font size to scrubbing out “legalese” — to help users understand their rights and how to exercise them. The videos are promoted offline through social service agencies, public libraries, and community computing centers. CitizenshipWorks provides interactive learning modules in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese to help users understand their eligibility for naturalization and prepare for the naturalization tests. For many immigrants, the complex rules that govern the naturalization process can be intimidating, particularly if they can’t afford to hire an attorney. These self-guided tutorials help users learn what steps are involved at their own pace, in their preferred language. The New York Courts have created interactive, bilingual online court forms, for example a do-it-yourself paternity petition in Spanish, to make the court system more accessible to individuals with a limited understanding of English.

Consider mobile outreach strategies

While language is one of the most powerful predictors of Internet use, mobile adoption trends offer new ways of reaching and engaging with multilingual communities. Individuals who face barriers to adopting broadband at home often turn to a mobile device to go online. Illinois Legal Aid Online found that 27% of traffic to their Spanish website in 2012 came from a mobile device, versus 16% of traffic to their English site. In response to strong mobile adoption among immigrant communities, CitizenshipWorks developed a nationwide text messaging service in English and Spanish. Users can text “citizenship” (“ciudadania” in Spanish) to 877877 to receive the location and contact information of nearby immigration legal services providers and alerts about upcoming naturalization workshops. CitizenshipWorks also offers a mobile app with study guides, flash cards, and other interactive tools in English and Spanish. Both the mobile app and SMS campaign complement educational resources available on the main website.

Use remote tools to bridge language gaps

Technology can help extend the physical reach of real-time interpreter resources, particularly where onsite assistance is not available because of cost factors or a shortage of qualified interpreters. Many court systems, community health centers, and social service agencies offer remote interpreting services through web-based videoconferencing tools. and provide real-time chat assistance in Spanish to help users find legal self-help resources and learn about local service providers. The chat services are staffed by trained bilingual law student volunteers. Remote assistance can be especially effective for rural communities, where in-language assistance may more be difficult to come by.

Explore community-based translation platforms and Translators without Borders have established robust community translation initiatives that leverage hundreds of volunteers to edit, translate, and review content. Both use web-based platforms to facilitate the intake and matching of new translation projects to volunteers, who can be located anywhere and volunteer at times convenient to them. While managing a large-scale volunteer translation program takes considerable resources and staff support, small nonprofits can take advantage of local volunteer resources with appropriate editorial and review processes in place, which can be facilitated by wikis and online collaboration tools.

As with any program delivery strategy, your target community’s information needs and technology adoption level will shape the design of your language access strategy. What works for Spanish-speaking communities might not work for Mandarin readers or Vietnamese-speakers. An iterative, participatory approach will help ensure that your online resources are useful and used. Most importantly, online resources and technology-enabled initiatives should not exist in isolation. They will have the most impact when interwoven with offline strategies and involvement from trusted local community partners.

What are your ideas for breaking through language barriers with technology? Let us know!

Gracias, merci, asante, salamat!

Liz Keith
Program Manager,
Pro Bono Net
Liz Keith is Program Director at Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit that works to transform the way legal help reaches the poor through innovative technology and collaboration. Liz holds a master’s degree in community informatics from the University of Michigan, focusing on public interest applications of information and communications technologies. While in graduate school Liz served as a consultant to community information projects in Michigan, Haiti and Chile for the Alliance for Community Technology and the Digital Partners Social Enterprise Laboratory. Prior to graduate school, Liz served as director of communications and development for the Maine Women’s Policy Center. She also coordinated several legislative outreach and education programs at the Center. Liz now lives in the San Francisco Bay area.