Providing multilingual services - if the Iranian can do it...

January 10, 2008, [MD]

It happened two of the three times that I crossed the Niagara/Buffalo border last year, so it cannot be such a rare occurrence. The first time I met him in the line at Toronto Bus Terminal, an elderly Chinese guy. I chatted with him in Chinese, and he told me he’d lived in Canada for three years, but spoke almost no English. He was too old he said, if he learnt something one day, the next it was gone. He asked me if I could assist him later, if there would be any problem. I agreed.

At the border, I went in together with him, and interpreted for him during the border interview. They asked him a number of questions, he answered (through me), and he was asked to go to the next “station”. I myself had to get a new visa waiver, which would cost me 10$ US, and they did not accept Canadian dollars. They told me to run across to the other side were there was a tax free store, and change my money there. When I came back, they were waiting for me, and asked “Are you the guy who speaks Chinese?”. Apparently they had found some documents on him that contradicted the story that he had told through me. Now his explanations got much harder to interpret, and I was worried I’d get something wrong, but finally they let him through the border.

The second time, I passed through customs, and was waiting on the bus for at least half an hour. Then a customs officer came into the bus and asked “Does anyone speak Chinese here?”. I volunteered, and was taken inside to interpret for a young Chinese woman. The story was quite complicated, involving a miscarriage, family problems and health issues. I was in no way qualified to translate, but they had nobody else, and luckily they let her through in the end.

Canadian media reported before Christmas about a Polish traveller, traveling in an airplane in the first time for his life, who came to Vancouver to visit his mother. Speaking not a word of English, he somehow made it through immigration, but could not find the way out of the security zone. Apparently he spent over 8 hours in there, while his mother was waiting on the outside, just meters away. Finally he became agitated, and guards arrived and tasered him (nevermind that he could not possibly had had any weapons, being in the security zone, and that they should have been able to easily overman him). Because of a heart condition, he tragically died from being tasered (link1, 2).

My final exhibit is the Toronto TTC (subway system). They have been displaying ads saying “call xxx, talk to the TTC in 70 languages”. I was always wondering how they would provide that many languages, and when I saw Malaysian on there, I thought I’d try it out (Bahasa Melayu is almost the same as Bahasa Indonesia, which I speak). I called the number, and was greeted by a menu “For information about surface routes, press 1. For information about subways, press 2. For information about delays, press 3.” (I am reconstructing purely after memory, but you get the general gist). [...] “For information in other languages, press 9″.

So someone who needed transit information, and did not speek English would probably already have hung up a long time ago. I wonder if they actually field tested this system on a single person who doesn’t speak any English.

As for the border crossing incidents, I’d like to propose a very simple solution that I experienced first hand in Iran. It’s quite curious, because at this time we had been travelling in the same way through four “‘Stans”, and China, but this never happened there. However, in Iran a common occurence was that someone would see us stopping at a shop. They’d be very excited to talk to us, but spoke no English. Not easily deterred, they picked up their cell phone and called their English speaking cousin, and gave us the phone.

Such a simple method. I realize that the Niagara border cannot have a Chinese translator just waiting in case there is a Chinese crossing the border (they probably don’t even have anyone speaking French there), but why isn’t there some kind of central interpretation centre for the government, where they could call in, choose Chinese, and instantly get a Chinese interpreter on the phone? That Chinese interpreter would have been able to interpret better than I could have, and would always be available. Perhaps in big airports you could even install big phones, with one button for each language, so that you could easily get information in your own language if you got lost.

As for the TTC quandry, I have no simple solution. Is such a service even useful, even if they gave each language their own phone number? I wonder if there has been any research made on how to design services that are accessible to people who do not speak the local language. What are the services that would be useful to them? Is a Chinese map of the TTC a useful service for Chinese speakers, or is something else needed? An attempt to broaden access should be applauded, but this needs to be tested on the people who need it - monolingual English speakers will never be able to design efficient services for multilingual and multicultural access.

Stian Håklev January 10, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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