As our public services face increasing linguistic diversity, booking a spoken language interpreter is often more complex than service providers realise or are trained to handle. In this article, Dr Leonie Gaiser and Dr Rebecca Tipton draw on their cross-disciplinary expertise in Linguistics and Interpreting Studies, to explore challenges in arranging language provision and discuss ways policymakers can enhance practice and outcomes.
- Each year the number of interpreter requests across public services increases with greater attention needed to minimise the risk of communication problems.
- Policymakers should advocate for mechanisms and technology for reporting/recording language variety to facilitate more accurate identification of an individual’s specific language needs and proficiencies.
- In-service training can help raise awareness of the relevance of dialect variation and support the identification of the language needs of individual service users, and this should be encouraged for staff across services dealing with non-English speakers.
Language variation and differences in individuals’ language repertoires (the language resources available to an individual) can lead to a mismatch between interpreter and service user, potentially causing miscommunication, generating delays to service provision and, in the worst cases, causing serious harm.
Entry points are critical
The once highly fragmented approach to language service provisions for those with limited or no English language has started to benefit from a planned approach nationally through tendering processes, but gaps remain. Given the considerable differences between some languages and their dialects in vocabulary, grammar and/or pronunciation, it is vital to elicit and record language-related information as accurately as possible before language provisions for a given service user are arranged. However, this process is not currently standardised within or across healthcare, education and social services.
Some interpreters report needing to interrupt interpreting assignments, requesting they be re-arranged as dialect differences had impeded effective communication; this has implications for cost, timeliness, and effectiveness of service delivery.
Non-standard language varieties are frequently overlooked in interpreter booking processes. There is often a lack of awareness among service providers about what language/dialect variation can mean in practice. Language identification cards, which display a range of languages and invite non-English speakers to point to their language, are widely used in public services. However, the range of languages included in the printed cards is limited, and dialect variation usually disregarded. For example, in the case of ‘Arabic’, such cards typically have only one entry using the Modern Standard variety, which differs considerably from the varieties used in spoken communication and ignores the fact that some Arabic dialects are not mutually intelligible.
Research insights from Manchester
University of Manchester-led research with public sector personnel across healthcare, social services and legal settings, interpreters, service users and interpreting providers has helped to establish a picture of routines, attitudes and knowledge used in booking processes. Our research shows how differences in how people define boundaries between languages and dialects mean that commonly used language labels are not straightforward and can cause mismatch between interpreter and service user.
The research also established that providers of spoken language interpreting services do not systematically collect information about an individual’s language and dialect proficiencies. Consequently, interpreter databases may hold little information beyond the ‘language’ spoken, which means that systematic pairing of an interpreter’s and a service user’s language resources is often not possible.
We recommend optimising and standardising mechanisms for reporting and recording language variety (including dialect) across public services (for example in NHS trusts).
Research also suggests social norms can be at play when interpreter requests are made. Datasets on interpreter requests show a general tendency to book interpreters for Standard languages rather than the non-standard varieties that are typically used in spoken conversation but often perceived as less prestigious (e.g. Urdu as opposed to Punjabi). Giving service users the option to select from a range of languages and dialects may normalise the choice of (in some contexts) stigmatised varieties and result in more accurate requests for interpreting. Government departments such as The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities could advocate for service users to be given these options.
The cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional INforMHAA study, conducted by Dr Tipton and colleagues, highlights the importance of recording specific issues around language use (which may include matters of dialect) that arise in interpreter-mediated Mental Health Act assessments, drawing attention to the need for Approved Mental Health Professionals to develop relevant knowledge in their initial and continuing professional development.
Our research has also identified pockets of innovation. For instance, the healthcare sector’s introduction of electronic patient records allows the recording of language needs more systematically, and the NHS has created an online system for booking interpreters, which now includes some non-standard varieties. However, it is unclear to what extent it is used across the sector.
Other research conducted in collaboration through the Multilingual Manchester initiative (2010-2020), found that some service providers have access to resources like Google Translate without fully appreciating that some of these technologies provide better language coverage than others, with some ‘lesser-spoken’ and non-standardised language varieties not being covered at all. Furthermore, accuracy can vary between certain language combinations and across topics, which may create risks to patient safety. Our research strongly supports a call for enhanced dialogue between key public services and language service providers and for local knowledge to inform institutional response and in-house training. In addition, the use of interpreting and translation technology needs to be regulated to ensure more effective and appropriate use of relevant software.
A need for pragmatism
Although it is unrealistic to assume that language service providers will be able to accommodate the many language and dialect variations spoken by service users, acknowledging the varieties most often requested in a particular local area can support a pro-active approach to in-house training and minimise wasted expense of mismatched interpreters. Systematic and continuous data monitoring on language needs can help support future planning.
Next steps for policy and practice
- UK public sectors should take a streamlined, universal approach to booking and providing interpreting and translation services, similar to the approach recently proposed for Wales.
- Expanding the information collected about interpreter language knowledge and competence on databases would generate increased accuracy in booking processes. Consultations/inquiries could be launched to gain a breadth of information and deeper understanding.
- Technology can help facilitate the process of establishing an individual’s language needs, e.g. by using electronic language identification cards that prompt users to select sub-varieties of languages and audio samples of dialects to help speakers select the most appropriate dialect. Government and healthcare, legal and social care services should work collaboratively, developing strategy to roll out this systematically across public services.
Finally, in-service training on optimum use of technologies and knowledge about language through frameworks co-developed by government departments (e.g. Department of Health and Social Care), public services and service providers is required.