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Multilingual Communication During an Emergency: Five Tips for Public Health Officials

Whenever health emergencies arise, public health officials must be prepared to communicate in multiple languages in order to inform all language speakers within the populations they serve. This includes communicating with those with limited English proficiency (LEP).

Who is a person with limited English proficiency (LEP)?

A person who does not speak English as their primary language and who has a limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand English well is considered Limited English Proficient.

What is multilingual communication?

Multilingual communication refers to intentionally creating a cohesive message across different languages. These can be spoken or written communications, and are especially important during emergencies, because consistency across all languages can mitigate risk and improve outcomes.

Tips for Successfully Communicating Across Multiple Languages in an Emergency

Having a multilingual communications strategy in place can ensure that the public at large, including LEPs, are adequately informed at every step during an emergency. Here are some tips for ensuring you can successfully disseminate important health-related information to the multilingual populations you serve during a critical time:

  1. Identify Specific Languages and Dialects Spoken in Your Area

The first step you’ll want to take is identifying the most spoken languages in your area. Although the Census Bureau reports at least 350 languages are spoken in US homes,1 you’ll need to drill down to the most spoken languages in the geographical areas you serve. This means you’ll want to access your state and local demographic data, available through the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as use the interactive map created by the Department of Education. By communicating your pertinent notifications to the spoken languages of the people you serve, you’ll better inform a much broader segment of the population.

  1. Get the Message Out to the Public with a Professional Interpreter

It is important for health officials to communicate with the public and the media during breaking situations, providing information during every stage of an emergency. Using a professional interpreter during live interviews and press conferences can reduce alarm by ensuring your important messages are clearly received by everyone. Employing a professional interpreter allows for your messages to be communicated without provoking unnecessary alarm or misunderstandings. If you are without an interpreter, Language Link has interpreters on stand-by in over 240 languages and dialects available for any of your needs.

  1. Translate Your Written Communications into Multiple Languages

When it comes to informing the public via statements, social media and website updates, posters, infographics and more, you’ll want to work with a professional translation agency that has a background in healthcare or public health. An experienced translation team can provide high-quality translated deliverables that effectively communicate with all of the audiences you are targeting. And because time is of the essence during emergency situations, you’ll want to work with a translation company like Language Link that is sensitive to your deadlines and can expedite orders so that you are able to publish them in a timely manner.

  1. Multilingual Communication Before, During and After an Emergency

Timely and thoughtful emergency response communications across different languages during every step of an emergency can prevent ineffective, fear-driven, and potentially damaging information from being disseminated to speakers of any language. Therefore, you’ll want to continue to address the LEP speakers in your audiences with every wave of your communication. And because emergencies and disasters often come unexpectedly, you’ll want to have a multilingual protocol in place well in advance that addresses the speakers of all languages in the locales that you serve.

  1. Be Mindful of Acronyms

Be mindful of acronyms in your translated communications and try to spell them out or avoid them when possible. If you must use health or scientific acronyms, discuss them in advance with your translation or interpretation team. A language service company can help guide you through both the general best practices and conventions specific to the language(s) your emergency notifications will be communicated in. It may surprise you to find that some acronyms are actually best left in English.

References

1  “Census Bureau Reports at Least 350 Languages Spoken in U.S. Homes,” U.S. Census Bureau, last modified November 3, 2015, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-185.html

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