Aidan Wilson writes…

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the phenomenon that the late Michael Clyne labelled the Monolingual Mindset: the outdated, flawed notion that it is normal for people to speak only one language, and that speaking two languages is both uncommon and difficult, and that bi- and multi-lingual people speak each of their languages inadequately. We at Fully (sic) loudly and proudly rally against the Monolingual Mindset wherever and whenever it emerges; and this morning is a prime example.

A report in The Age today, reveals that the Victorian Department of Human Services (DHS), which administers public housing, surveys its residents for valuable feedback, but does not provide the form in any language other than English. Moreover, the questions on the 12-page form are reportedly difficult to understand even for a native speaker of English. The provided example is ‘How can good tenant behaviour and mutual obligation be incentivised?’

This is a problem because, according to tenants’ advocacy groups, up to 60% of residents in some areas are not from English-speaking backgrounds and instead speak languages such as Dari and Hazaragi (from Afghanistan), Dinka (from South Sudan), Greek, Turkish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian and Arabic. Mere-Paore Epere, chairwoman of one such tenants’ group, rang the department to ask whether the survey was available in other languages, but was told to get family friends of the residents to help them fill out the survey.

Surely the department would be aware that for many residents, especially those from Afghanistan and South Sudan, there is a high chance that they would not have family friends in Australia and, if they did, they would be similarly unlikely to be first language speakers of English. It would also be unreasonable to expect the tenants’ groups to shoulder the burden of ensuring that residents get their say in these important feedback surveys by providing interpreters, although I’m sure some groups already do so.

Imagine you and your family live in a foreign land and don’t speak the language, and you receive a bunch of very official looking documents and questionnaires in the mail but are unable to understand or answer them properly. I imagine that most people in this scenario would feel tempted to ignore the survey entirely, and that would be tantamount to them losing some of their rights as residents.

The department’s website has, in its footer, links to information available in no less than 28 languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Dari, Persian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese (both simplified and traditional), Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Macedonian and Filipino, although not all documents are translated into each language, but instead, a somewhat random selection. Some languages like Hindi and Somali, don’t have any documents available in them.

I realise the pragmatic difficulty of translating all departmental documents into all languages, but the department should be making more of an effort to protect public housing residents’ rights. Having this feedback survey translated into enough languages to account for the breadth of their residents, and providing interpreters where necessary, should therefore be a priority.

Here’s some free advice to DHS: Google Translate, while not perfect, is better than nothing, and it might force you to abandon stupid words like ‘incentivise’.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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