Sunday, June 14, 2009

Migrants lost in Translation

I was not at all surprised to read this article: Councils spend £50m a year translating documents no-one reads

Just look a this:

"Haringey translated into Albanian, Kurdish and Somali a leaflet for recommending council staff for internal awards. Only 12 people ever viewed the documents."

It reads as though this leaflet is for council staff. If council staff cannot read English, then surely they should not be employed by the council at all. What an utter waste of money!

Whilst people might speak a language, it does not always mean that they are able to read the language just as well.

Also, the councils assume that people have free access to computers and internet. As this is not the case, the headline here is also misleading (let's call a spade a spade).

While I am not terribly fond of Ms Hazel Blears her advice to councils to "think twice before translating documents" makes sense.

This is a version of my letter sent to Times (the newspaper) and published on 13th September 2007:

Voiceless migrants

"Sir, As a social anthropologist I have been shocked to learn how little English some elderly migrants can understand even after some 30 years in the UK (“You live here. You learn English. OK?”, Sept 11). Many no longer live with their families and cannot get on trains or buses on their own because they cannot read bus numbers, information on destinations and even signboards that might give them a clue as to where and how to get on and off. As such, many are reduced to being virtual prisoners in their own homes.

With no English, this generation cannot even go to the doctor, dentist or optometrist without an interpreter, often leaving symptoms undiagnosed till it’s far too late. They also have little chance of communicating with their grandchildren, who are unlikely to speak their mother tongue beyond the most basic civilities. Most pertinently, migrants cannot participate in the political process via elections and referendums, on issues that might affect them.

My new neighbours (white, blond, driving large vans) are not getting their bins emptied because they do not seem able to follow instructions on what to place in each bin (I have tried to explain). When I worked in Amsterdam I learnt Dutch to get on with everyday life, as did the refugees I worked with there. We are not doing new migrants any favours by not insisting that they understand and speak good English. "

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There is one recorded online response to this:

"As an ex-pat, who has done the same as Dr Lee no less than three times - so far - I can vouch for how enormously difficult it is to learn a foreign language. Some people learn in a matter of months, others only know a few words after 20 years of trying. There is no general rule. Insisting that a foreigner learns English is almost akin to insisting that he or she goes and wins the national lottery. It seems to me that this insistence that foreigners coming to Britain should know English is just a hidden means of reducing immigration. For those who favour this requirement, I would suggest that they try and learn some Arabic; they will then fully appreciate what is being asked.

Terence Hollingworth, Blagnac, France"

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Recently a mother with three kids came to my toddler group. I think she's Ethiopia-born. When I asked where she came from, her answer was 'Nederland'. Great! So I tried refreshing my Nederlandse in conversation with her.

She speaks very good Nederlandse, precisely because she would have needed Nederlandse to get her any help within the local government system there.

Her Engels is very good, too, better than her 'sisters' (ie her friends) who had been living here in London.

Any idea why?

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