COVID has presented local and federal governments with a problem they’ve had for years: how to communicate with the nearly 900,000 people who only speak limited English in Australia (2016 Census).
This growing minority has long been left in the dark about key government information, thanks to relying on website translations and inconvenient phone translation services.
The rush to provide information
Now, ABC reports that some COVID-related information distributed by state and federal governments has been incorrect. Migration Council Australia chief executive Carla Wilshere stated “in the rush to get a lot of information out to migrant communities, it has been a little bit hit and miss. Some of the translations have been of a particularly formal nature, or have grammar mistakes or have syntax errors.”
Similarly, Deena Yako of the Refugee Council of Australia said an image posted by the Federal Health Department in Arabic was so poorly formatted that it didn’t make sense; “it’s gibberish and it’s nonsensical”.
Limited-English speakers have long been left out
But whether or not we can blame the urgency of the pandemic, the issue runs deep: where can non-English speakers turn to get the information that they need? The answer is not in waiting for dribs and drabs of imagery tailored to their language to appear on social media – they need a helpline to discuss questions and concerns directly with government bodies.
Phone hotlines have notoriously been inundated with calls during COVID, and can’t cater to non-English speakers without separate translation dial-in services. A messaging helpline is becoming a necessity.
But phone lines are over-burdened
David Hayes founded Babeltext, a messaging platform, for this very reason. “We know in the hospitality sector that customers actually like communicating with hotels or staff via messaging. It’s convenient. And given the large percentage of foreign tourists that a hotel receives, translation is crucial.”
Messaging, via SMS on your phone, allows for instant translation to-and-from your language of choice. Currently, Babeltext can automatically translate 104 languages, and while translations may not always be 100% accurate, Hayes stresses the need for conversation.
The translation must be a conversation – not a one-off image
“If someone is unclear about the information they’ve received, they can chat directly with an operator and get that clarity. Like any phone call you have with a call center, you can go back and forth quickly, or at your own pace until you’re satisfied that you have the information you need.”
“This is what is missing by solely distributing generalized content online or with posters.”
With the pandemic looking to get worse before it gets better, Australians need to work together to stop the spread. This surely cannot be achieved until everyone has access to the same critical information.
There are 900,000 people around us that need to know what’s going on.