JEFF STURGEON, The Roanoke Times
ROANOKE, Va. (AP) – About 95,000 of the 100,000 people who live in the town of Roanoke speak English well enough to work, go to school, receive health care, interact with government, use the system transportation and access to other basic necessities of life.
A language barrier inhibits this commitment for the other 5,000.
The city of Roanoke intends to break down this barrier next month.
The city has contracted a company that can get interpreters of 286 languages to the phone in half a minute, officials said.
The program is operational in courts, prisons, emergency services, police, the Ministry of Social Services and other municipal offices. It is intended to facilitate conversation between city offices and employees and members of the public with limited knowledge of English. It works from a phone, tablet, laptop or computer.
The principles of linguistic equity state that essential information must be available to members of a community in the specific language that each person uses the most comfortable, said Katie Hedrick, the bilingual COVID-19 support specialist at the city, which runs the program.
It is not enough for an agency like social services to tell clients to bring their own interpreter to their appointment, said Steve Martin, director of the agency. It’s not good enough or even practical enough for kids to translate for parents at the doctor’s, at the bank, or at teachers’ conferences, according to logic.
Google Translate is also not sufficient because, according to critics, it makes mistakes.
The gold standard is live two-way interpretation by a qualified translator.
The city purchased its language access system from Volatia Language Network, a private company based in Roanoke, which claims it has built a network of 18,000 interpreters who provide on-demand translations 24 hours a day, seven days a week. L installation in the city began in April and is expected to be completed next month.
Full cost information was not available, but Hedrick’s information indicates that the system could cost a few tens of thousands of dollars this year. Volatia charges a per-minute rate while the interpretation is in progress, but no monthly rate.
Roanoke is the first Virginia municipality in the state to offer two-way or “two-way” language access, said Volatia CEO Baraka Kasongo. The first school systems in the state to offer it are those in Henrico County, the City of Richmond and Waynesboro, he said.
Many governments, including Roanoke at one point, school systems, and healthcare organizations offer one-way language services – organization staff can invite an interpreter into the conversation for meetings with people who don’t speak. not easily English, Kasongo said.
Two-way language access puts the resident in touch with an interpreter in their preferred language when initiating contact. There is no waiting period for the person who answered to identify the language of the caller and find and arrange the participation of an interpreter.
Roanoke’s system even has an advantage over organizations that offer a connection with an interpreter through a hotline or call center, Kasonga said. In Roanoke, people can call the office or whoever they’re looking for directly – just like, Kasongo noted, people who speak English easily do.
Kasongo, 35, is from Rwanda and came to Roanoke years ago. His company, based on his own experience as a limited English speaker, was founded in 2003.
To understand how the system works, it’s easier to imagine a hypothetical caller contacting Roanoke by phone for a new trash can, a library card, information about a neighborhood group, or the like.
Most of Roanoke’s municipal phone lines are answered with a recorded message that says, “For English, press 1. For all other languages, press 2.”
The Volatia software is activated when the second option is selected. “We have an algorithm that listens to them talk,” Kasonga said.
It identifies the caller’s language and calls an interpreter on the line. The interpreter remains on the line while the caller is connected to the originally dialed municipal office. A three-way conversation ensues involving the caller, the interpreter and the town employee. If the call is directed to voicemail, the interpreter translates the caller’s message into English for recording.
In addition, the system allows video conferencing. This means that city employees, who have password access to the Volatia app, can choose a video conference over an audio call if they wish. If a resident in need of assistance happens to be physically present, video may be the solution.
A faster protocol provides interpretation for the 911 system to avoid delaying the caller report.
Hedrick, the program manager, said it might take some time for city staff and city service users to understand how the system works. A period of training has started which will continue, she said, including the possible publication of a video to explain the system to members of the community.
Hedrick demonstrated the system on Friday using an iPad tablet that was placed in the lobby of the Noel C. Taylor Municipal Building. From a language menu, she selected Swahili with the touch of a finger. Invisible to users, the software summoned a Swahili interpreter to the call.
Within moments, Evans Otieno appeared via videoconference from Nairobi, Kenya. Upon learning of its location, Hedrick mentioned that one of the sister cities in the Roanoke Valley is Kisumu, Kenya.
“This is my hometown,” Otieno said.
Roanoke being a resettlement area for longtime refugees, dozens of languages are spoken locally. In addition to Swahili, a language spoken in Africa, foreign languages commonly spoken in Roanoke are Spanish, Dari, Haitian Creole, Nepalese and Arabic, Hedrick said. There are 7,000 languages in the world, of which Volatia says it has 286.
An estimated 5% of the city’s residents speak “less than good” English, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.
For them, not mastering the dominant language presents all kinds of obstacles to success.
“You are pretty much left out of the opportunities and resources that can help you improve your life,” said Ahoo Salem, who runs Blue Ridge Literacy, a nonprofit that helps adults achieve their life goals through literacy skills.
The practical uses of the new system are numerous.
Recently, a man walked into a local library to attend a vaccination clinic, Hedrick said. He did not respond verbally when registering for the shot, in which case event staff determined he was deaf. A tablet computer was set up with the language application running. Someone tapped on the sign language key.
“I would say within 15 seconds we had an interpreter on the iPad,” Hedrick said. The man received the tablet and “held it for the entire date,” Hedrick said.
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