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Multilingual Accessibility in International Communities

by Yana Schottenstein

Geneva is one of the world’s most multicultural cities. With a population of nearly 200,000 people, over 20,000 new residents move into the city each year. Formally, the official language of Geneva (both the city and canton) is French. However, as a result of the city’s increasingly diverse population, Albanian, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish are also commonly-spoken languages. In more recent years, as English-speaking foreigners move to Geneva to work in the bank sector, about 4.4% of the Geneva population are now English-speakers.

Today, there are more non-Francophones in Geneva than ever before. One major challenge is addressing the population’s needs, from accessing public resources to navigating street signage. The city of Geneva has been highly proactive in meeting its non-Francophone residents where they are.

As of December 2015, Geneva offers four information centers located throughout the city offering multilingual interpretation and translation services. They have also rolled out multilingual helplines through the information centers, accessible to the public. Through these new resources, Geneva offers all of its residents to access information regardless of the language they speak.

In efforts to further the city’s resources to non-Francophone residents, Geneva is developing a new translation plan. This plan includes the translation of various documents, administration programs and manuals into five languages: English, Portuguese, Spanish, Albanian and Arabic.

These five languages were chosen based on demographic studies for the Geneva population. The goal of implementing this translation plan is to help expatriate families to access public services and resources.

Such a widespread movement to increase public accessibility is admirable. Multilingual translations are a common hot-button issue in the interpreter/translator community today, particularly within the U.S. Based on the U.S. Census Bureau, it is estimated that about 25.1 million Americans speak English “less than very well”. If American cities were to roll out a translation plan similar to that in Geneva, this could mean an incredible expansion of accessibility to resources.

Non-English speaking families could have easier access to knowing how to reach public resources, such as the police, local Boards of Education, and voter information. Many Americans take these resources and services for granted, but for those who do not speak English fluently, reaching basic services can turn into a headache.

Of course, there are a few movements in place to remedy this gap in accessibility. Some establishments now offer signage in languages other than English, and it is increasingly common for organizations to offer tele-interpretation services to their customers.

As we shift toward a more diverse, globally aware culture, it is imperative that we continue working to dismantle language barriers and create multilingual accessibility for all populations.

About the writer

Yana Schottenstein, founder of Access 2 Interpreters, contributed content to this article. Access 2 Interpreters is a leading translation and interpretation company in Columbus, Ohio, USA.

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