Community Interpreters: Why Being Bilingual Isn’t Enough

community interpreter
February 5, 2021

With over 25 million U.S. residents who speak English “less than very well”, the demand for interpreters sometimes exceeds the supply. To bridge the gap, organizations may rely on bilingual family members or staff. Yet they make poor substitutes for professional interpreters. In this article, we’ll take a look at the role community interpreters play, why being bilingual isn’t enough, and how to connect one remotely.

What Is a Community Interpreter?

Simply put, a community interpreter is someone who performs their role in community-based settings. They typically serve communities with large limited English-speaking proficiency (LEP) populations and provide language support when it comes to:

In addition to linguistic training, community interpreters must be well-versed in their field of expertise. Fields such as legal and medical typically require certification. Like all interpreters, they must also adhere to a code of ethics, which includes remaining neutral during sessions. 

Now that you know a little more about community interpreters, let’s take a look at examples in healthcare, legal, and education.

Interpreters in Healthcare

From annual exams to emergency room visits, medical interpreters are trained to work in a range of medical settings. They assist with everything from calls for appointments to medical exams to insurance claims.

Bilingual staff members sometimes fulfill this role when an interpreter isn’t available. However, they lack proper training and may not know all the terminology in both languages.  

While asking a bilingual staff member to interpret isn’t ideal, asking a family member is even worse. Why? Because family members not only lack training, but they may make it difficult for a patient to speak openly with a provider. No matter how well meaning the family member, they may interfere with the appointment.   

Interpreters in Legal

Although legal interpreters are associated with courtrooms, you can also find them working in attorney’s offices, government agencies, jails, and other locations. They’re often skilled in both consecutive interpreting and simultaneous interpreting, and may interpret depositions, mediations, arbitrations, and more.

Given the nature of legal proceedings, it isn’t appropriate to ask a bilingual staff member to act as an interpreter. Doing so could violate someone’s privacy or create a conflict of interest. Clients, for example, have the right to speak confidentially with an attorney. 

Asking a bilingual family member to interpret would be an even bigger mistake. Family members may misinterpret what someone says, intentionally leave out information, and won’t be able to remain neutral. 

Interpreters in Education

Educational interpreters help LEP students and their parents adapt to the school system. They assist with enrollment, interpret during classes, facilitate communication during parent-teacher meetings, and more. Because they work with children, educational interpreters must have a deep understanding of childhood development and know how to adapt to their needs.

Interpreting for children is more challenging than it is for adults. Bilingual staff members may not be able to accurately assess when a child hasn’t understood something or needs more help. When it comes to interpreting for parents, bilingual staff may not have the right expertise to do so. For example, a bilingual teacher may not have the vocabulary to interpret a school board meeting.

Bilingual family members, on the other hand, may not understand the education system well enough to interpret. Asking an older sibling or the child themselves to interpret can change perceptions of authority figures and interfere with learning.

Improving Accessibility Through Remote Interpreting  

As you can see, community interpreters serve an essential role in a variety of organizations. However, hiring one—especially on short notice—can be a challenge. Fortunately, options such as video remote and over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) make it possible to virtually connect with an interpreter within minutes.

Want to learn more about interpreting options? Contact us today!