Every second-language speaker knows: You’re fluency is only as good as your last sentence. We scientists call it “B-language terror,” that moment when the words free, and you are left deaf and dumb in a world beyond your understanding. Like one of those nightmares standing naked and speechless in front of English class.
Now the really scary part. In real life, getting in over your head in a second language can kill you. Language fails us most often in high-risk settings. Second-language speakers facing new experience in their new language are at a particular disadvantage. Emergency room, cops and courts, all high stress situations regardless of English fluency. Add linguistic misunderstanding and Limited English Proficient (LEP) speakers in the US are particularly vulnerable. They may be far enough along to mange fine in English at work or the grocery store, but a courtroom interrogation or cancer diagnosis can leave even proficient English speakers lost in a lack of translation. Those with a shade less fluency can be left in total confusion as a situation turns from “everyday” to “big trouble.”
I’m thinking about this because I got my consciousness raised by the cool graphic of the land where language meets “justice for all.”
At Cardozo’s Naitional Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ) they say that “justice depends on having a fair chance ot be heard, regardless of who you are, where you live, or how much money you have. For those who can’t understand English, “access to the courts requires assistance that is often not available. Even in the courtroom itself, interpreters can be hard to find or of poor quality. Outside the courtroom, language assistance is scarcer still” says NCAJ.
To shed light on the problem, the NCAJ put together the Justice Index map to show how some states make sure that language is not a barrier to justice. Surprisingly big differences between all the states not always related to immigrant numbers.
And the winners for linguistic legal access?
North Dakota, Delaware and Minnesota all led in the 98th percentile for ensuring equal justice for non-English speakers. Oklahoma and New Hampshire were tied for last place with a resounding 0.0, meaning that these two states had adopted none of the NCAJ recommendations to insure justice for those not proficient in English. Results are compiled from the 15 best practices that NCAJ believes are required for LEP speakers to receive a fair hearing (or listening) in court. Criteria included certification standards for court interpreters, rules regarding their use, translations of court websites, and other measures know to help those seeking justice without English language skills. Follow the links for additional details.
Cool interactive graphic here. Very interesting look at US linguistic data and useful compendium of translation law in the US.