Seeking to be Understood: Emergency Messaging in Other Languages

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The US is a mosaic of cultures, languages, and communities.  That diversity is growing: the number of people in the U.S. who speak a language other than English at home nearly tripled from 1980 to 2019, and is now estimated at  nearly 23% of the U.S. population. And it’s not just Spanish: there are more than 20 languages spoken by 400,000 or more people in the US. This diversity is a major challenge for emergency communicators, who have a responsibility to work for the safety and well-being of all residents within their jurisdictions.

While there are more spoken languages than ever in the US, English fluency is actually improving. The percentage of people who have limited English skills has actually gone down. Today, about 4% of US households are considered limited in their ability to use English.

But even for those immigrants who can use English comfortably, accessing emergency communications in one’s native language can substantially increase the efficacy of the message, particularly in high-stress situations. 

The Stakes

Emergency situations can cause stress and even panic. These situations may require immediate comprehension and rapid response. The cognitive load on the human mind increases significantly in emergencies, which makes it highly useful to receive messages in a person’s most familiar language, resulting in faster, more accurate responses. In emergency alerts, the clarity of communication can mean the difference between effective and ineffective warnings and guidance.

Non-native English speakers may find English-only alerts incomprehensible, confusing or misunderstood, with potentially disastrous outcomes. Even fluent non-native English speakers may find it challenging to process information quickly when under stress. Psycholinguistic research shows that people process information most efficiently in their first language. For example, a study by the University of Miami found that bilingual individuals respond more rapidly to commands or alerts in their first language, especially under stress. So it’s important to deliver emergency messages as close as possible to the native language of the recipient. 

There’s empirical support for these ideas.  In the case of Hurricane Sandy, for example, areas with high non-English speaking populations that received timely information in their native languages reported more effective evacuations and preparedness than those without native language information.  And comparative studies from countries with high levels of multilingualism, like Switzerland and Canada, show that emergency response systems incorporating multiple languages are more effective in managing crises. 

Benefits of Multilingual Emergency Messages

  1. Better Communication: Messages in a person’s native language eliminate the cognitive load required to process a second language, enabling quicker and clearer understanding during critical situations.
  2. Enhanced Community Preparedness: When everyone understands emergency procedures and alerts clearly, the entire community’s preparedness and resilience improve.
  3. Increased Comfort and Security: Receiving information in one’s first language can reduce anxiety and help individuals feel more secure about the actions they need to take.
  4. Fostering Inclusivity: Acknowledging the linguistic diversity of residents by providing multilingual resources reflects respect and consideration for the entire community’s needs and can help increase trust in authorities. 
  5. Compliance with Legal Requirements: Federal and state laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, encourage or require that language access be provided to all residents.

Implementing Multilingual Emergency Systems

Implementing multilingual emergency communication systems can be a real challenge.  Here are some of the steps recommended by FEMA and other experts in the field:

  • Assessment of Linguistic Needs: Authorities are advised to conduct regular assessments to identify the most commonly spoken languages within their jurisdictions and the specific needs of these language groups.  If that sounds expensive and difficult, you can start with the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which can give you a breakdown of languages spoken at home for your county and many municipalities.
  • Community Collaboration: Reaching out to community leaders and cultural associations in planning and disseminating emergency communications can help ensure that messages are culturally appropriate and reach their intended audience. Churches, mosques and other houses of worship are excellent places to find cultural resources for immigrant populations.
  • Training and Resources: Emergency responders and officials should be trained in cultural competency and provided with the necessary resources to manage multilingual communications effectively.
  • Technology Integration: Leveraging technology such as automated translation services and multilingual alert systems can streamline the process of disseminating emergency messages efficiently across different language groups. *Hint: this is where we come in…

What Languages? 

Nationally, Spanish is obviously the largest share of households speaking a different language at home, followed by Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Arabic. But your community may be very different.  For example, there is a fairly large number of German speakers in central Virginia, French speakers in Maine, and Haitian Creole speakers in southern Florida. Altogether, there are more than 100 languages spoken somewhere in the US. 

If you need help identifying the languages in your community, you can go to the Census bureau. Or let us help.  We know how to find this information for your area

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How Mass Notification Systems Can Help

The best Mass Notification Systems such as Hyper-Reach can provide automated language translation to deliver messages in most of the languages emergency managers and public safety agencies are likely to confront.  Hyper-Reach uses Google Translate, which supports 133 languages. 

The most recent use of Google Translate in the Hyper-Reach system embeds a hyper-link in SMS and email messages, which, when clicked, takes the user to a page with a drop-down option that can translate the message into any of the languages that Google Translate supports. For example, the picture below shows the translation into Tagalog, the primary language of the Philippines.  And Hyper-Reach can configure the list of languages to cover most or all of the languages spoken in your community.  

Conclusion

Sending emergency messages in the native languages of residents is clearly a best practice for effective emergency messaging. Given the wide variety of cultures and languages that define the US, it is vital that our emergency communication systems evolve to meet the needs of every resident with equal urgency and clarity. By ensuring that all residents receive timely and understandable information during emergencies, you can enhance the resilience and safety of your community and our nation as a whole.

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