The language challengeby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
It's commonplace to hear languages from around the world on the streets of Pelican Rapids. Many immigrants speak little English. The result is a language barrier that can make simple tasks difficult.
Pelican Rapids, Minn. — Misunderstandings can happen even when everyone speaks the same language. Pelican Rapids police officer Curt Markgraf may hear a half dozen different languages in a 12-hour shift.
Markgraf patrols the quiet streets of Pelican Rapids on a recent Friday evening. There's not much happening. It's typical small town police work but this is not a typical small town.
"We may be dealing with Somalians five minutes from now and leave that call and we may be dealing with Hispanics. Leave that call and we could be dealing with Kurdish people or Russians," says Markgraf. "It's a little town with a whole lot of diversity and I guess the best way to get through that is to treat everybody like you'd like to be treated."
Markgraf says serious crime is rare in Pelican Rapids. Much of what he responds to are family or neighbor disputes. But not understanding the language can make it harder to unravel the problem.
"It takes a long time. You're going to invest a lot of time in the call. I'm in the business of helping people and if I can't understand them I need to do what it takes to be able to understand them," says Markgraf.
Markgraf will sometimes use a family member to interpret, but he prefers to use a trained translator. The police department has a list of people who can be called to help officers overcome the language barrier.
Translators have a variety of background and training. Some have no formal training, but are fluent in English and their native language.
Others, like Yusuf Abdi, are trained and certified. Abdi is a certified medical and legal interpreter who is paid for translation in court or at a medical facility.
He also volunteers to translate when needed. Abdi, a high school junior who came to Pelican Rapids six years ago from Somalia, carries a cell phone so he's always available to translate.
Abdi says an unbiased translator is critical when there's a dispute. Abdi recalls a young Somali boy who called police after his mother spanked him for skipping school.
"The kid has something in mind that's like he can do anything he wants. Mom can't do anything to you in America. So when she spanked him, he called 9-1-1. The mom can't speak English, so the kid was translating his side of the story. He translated to the police that his mom wasn't being nice to him, she was abusing him," relates Abdi.
When Abdi arrived on the scene, he translated the mother's side of the story. He says after hearing both sides, the police officer settled the dispute by telling the boy to listen to his mother and return to school.
Another place a good interpreter is important is at the doctor's office.
In her office at Meritcare clinic in Pelican Rapids, Director of Nursing Rita Cowie demonstrates the interpreter service the clinic uses several times a day.
She dials the phone, punches in a user code and requests a Somali interpreter. A few seconds later, a trained medical translator is on the line.
"Given a choice, I would prefer to use the Language Line," says Cowie. "They're very knowledgeable and it's very unbiased. They're strictly interpreting for us."
Rita Cowie says there was a time the clinic relied on friends or family members to interpret. They still do sometimes. But there are concerns about privacy, and avoiding unnecessary confusion or embarrassment.
"We had a woman come in with pregnancy issues and had her 12-year-old son interpreting and to try to explain menstruation with a 12-year-old boy is not a very good thing," says Cowie. "We prefer the language line."
In another case, a broken collarbone was mistakenly translated as a broken neck, causing moments of panic for parents of the injured child.
The language barrier can also be a problem in the workplace. Many Somali's work at West Central Turkeys, the turkey processing plant that's the largest employer in Pelican Rapids. Jobs at the plant bring many immigrants to town. Interpreter Yusuf Abdi says there aren't always translators at the plant, and he says he knows of a few cases where people have been fired because they didn't understand instructions.
"They won't get something straight or they will lose their job because of making a mistake that hasn't been told. Sometimes they (supervisors) don't even listen to their side of the story. They made a mistake and they say, 'You're done,'" says Abdi.
West Central Turkeys did not respond to an interview request from MPR.
Diane Kimm at Lutheran Social Services in Pelican Rapids says language affects a host of everyday activities. At the grocery store, labels are in English. A prescription from the pharmacy has instructions in English. A trip to the bank or post office can be bewildering.
Kimm says many businesses in Pelican Rapids have adapted well. Some have multi-lingual employees, others work with interpreters.
Volunteers teach english classes for immigrants four days a week at the public library, and most immigrants learn at least some English.
Diane Kimm says learning enough English for basic communication helps people negotiate daily tasks, but doesn't eliminate the need for translators. She sometimes participates in school conferences for children with learning disabilities, and Kimm says she's found even immigrants who speak English well are often more comfortable with their native language.
"We think sometimes we have a parent who speaks well. Then we get a translator on the telephone and it's just a whole new level of speaking when they're able to say it in their language. It makes a big difference," says Kimm.
"The push to have everyone speaking English is very strong here. And maybe at some point there won't be a need for the translators, but that's a long long way into the future."
For now the challenge for Pelican Rapids residents will be to continue finding creative ways to communicate and exercising patience with the miscommunication that can happen when the world comes together in a small town.
- All Things Considered, 05/30/2006, 5:15 p.m.