When Words Get in the Way

Natasja van der Lingen, MA

Reprinted from "System Navigation" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 10 (1), pp. 21-23

I am a WorkBC employment services advisor for Beacon Community Services, a multi-service non-profit agency in Victoria, BC. Frequently, I encounter clients who struggle with multiple barriers to employment, such as limited education and training, disabilities or unstable housing.Immigrant job seekers often have a possible language barrier as well.

For immigrants, the struggle to communicate clearly and with confidence significantly impacts their ability to familiarize themselves with local resources and to access service providers. It was this kind of struggle that brought a mature immigrant woman to tears in my office recently.

Marina*

Marina was referred to us by the BC Employment and Assistance program. People who apply for income assistance benefits (welfare) are routinely directed to WorkBC Employment Service Centres, where we support them in their efforts to find sustainable employment.

Marina moved to Canada from the Ukraine many years ago, but she had relied heavily on her former husband to handle communication with businesses and service providers. Her English skills, after all these years, remained limited.

Marina was single now, desperately trying to build a new life for herself here, on her own. She realized, however, that she couldn’t do it all on her own. She needed support with finding employment, finding stable housing and accessing mental health services to deal with a past traumatic experience. Her efforts to access crucial services and supports were greatly hampered by her inability to communicate clearly in English.

Marina needed to update her banking information for her Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and have her automatic deposits redirected. Her tears of frustration on that day stemmed from her failed attempts to explain her situation over the phone to a CPP representative.

Lost in translation—A stranger in strange lands

My own experience as a Dutch immigrant in Canada wasn’t a difficult one. I was a teenager when I moved here with my family. I was already proficient in English, as I’d had a nomadic early childhood and had studied at international schools. Later as an adult, I did struggle from time to time with determining a ‘home’ for myself—a result of being not quite from anywhere in particular. This was a common challenge for a “third culture kid.” Nevertheless, I was, for the most part, comfortable adapting to new environments here in Canada.

I have, however, experienced trying to familiarize myself with a new land or cityscape and not being comfortable. (By “comfortable,” I mean moving about with a confidence that only comes with fully understanding and speaking a common language.) I remember being helplessly lost on more than one occasion in Taiwan, having boarded the wrong bus because I couldn’t read Chinese, and oh my goodness, all those streets looked the same to me!

The language barrier became even more frustrating when I fell ill in Seoul, South Korea. There on a one-year teaching contract, I came to class day after day, weak with an unrelenting cough. My Korean colleagues teased me—“Just eat some meat!” they quipped. I was vegetarian.

Despite being in one of the world’s most bustling cities, I felt more and more isolated as my health deteriorated. I just didn’t know where to go for help. Once, when I felt particularly unwell at work, I was escorted to a nearby clinic where they hooked me up to an IV. To this day I don’t know what kind of fluid I was given (it did provide a temporary energy boost).

I realized I needed more urgent help when I woke one night in a panic, gripping the side of my mattress as I tried to clear my airway of fluids, and feeling like I was suffocating. I described my symptoms to the only Korean staff member at school who was fluent in English. Since she wasn’t available to accompany me to a doctor, she described my symptoms to another staff member who hardly spoke a word of English. I then had to trust this staff member to relay my information accurately to a doctor. So there I was, sitting in a doctor’s office, as my health was discussed in front of me in a language I didn’t speak.

My symptom details had been passed through three different people, and I wondered how much information had been lost in translation. Fortunately, trusting in my co-workers and in unfamiliar service providers resulted in a positive outcome for me. I was diagnosed with asthma and given the right medications, so recovered fairly quickly.

Interpretation services

Through the work I do for Beacon Community Services, and previously for the Capital Mental Health Association, I’ve become increasingly familiar with the many services and resources available to people with multiple barriers here in Canada. These include a number of services for immigrants with language barriers—including the very important language interpretation services, which are certainly available to immigrants here in Victoria.

It’s very important for service providers to be aware of the professional translation and interpretation services available to immigrants and to help their clients access these services as needed. Nobody should have to rely on friends, co-workers or family members to speak on their behalf. When it comes to personal matters, such as one’s finances or health, some information may be too embarrassing to share with other people, even those close to you. Service providers also need to be aware, when speaking about personal matters to well-intending advocates in front of clients and patients, that confidentiality and dignity are at stake.

When immigrant job seekers come to our employment services centre, one of the first things they are asked is whether they’re familiar with the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) or with the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA). At ICA, clients are able to access interpretation services as well as document translation services (for a fee) from certified community interpreters in over 50 languages. Volunteer interpreters at VIRCS, though not certified, offer assistance to clients for free. VIRCS also employs employment services advisors who speak different languages and are able to offer some assistance with interpretation.

Integration

Thinking back on my own intercultural and international struggles, I remember there came a time when the unfamiliar language stopped being “gibberish.” When I started hearing words among the confusion of sounds. When I started feeling more connected to my environment. When I started feeling safe. And feeling connected and safe didn’t come just from learning more of the language—it came with putting my faith in service providers who had the patience to listen while I struggled to find the right words to communicate my needs. And it came with the courage to reach out to new communities, trusting that, somehow, I’d eventually find my place among them.

*Client names and any identifying information, including countries of origin, have been altered to protect privacy and confidentiality.

 
About the author

Natasja has worked with people with disabilities for nearly 20 years. Ten of these years focused on vocational rehabilitation and employment services. In addition to related training, including in mental health and addictions, Natasja has a master’s degree in, and passion for, intercultural and international communication. She lives and works in Victoria, BC

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