While the federal government’s policy goal of stronger English language skills among migrants has been controversial, its main service delivery department is proud of its ability to speak to people in their first language.
As a way to mark Harmony Day last Thursday (now part of Harmony Week), the Department of Human Services decided to highlight the role of its 540 multilingual staff.
Meanwhile, it has also been trying out a new online website translation system powered by “machine learning technology” from Microsoft, according to Human Services Minister Michael Keenan. Initially, it allows Chinese speakers to use the Payment and Service Finder in their own language, and was used almost 350 times a week in a recent trial.
The department has 540 multilingual staff, who collectively speak more than 40 languages between them. “These staff use their language skills every day to help people who are culturally and linguistically diverse have the same access to the department’s services as people who speak English,” reports the DHS media team.
Some of those 540 staff talk to people in person and others work for the Multilingual Phone Service (131 202, 8am-5pm, Monday-Friday), which takes about 2500 calls a day in over 33 languages, making it the largest of the kind in the southern hemisphere.
Of those, 314 are in New South Wales and the ACT, 91 are based in Victoria, 42 are in Queensland, 38 in Tasmania, 23 in South Australia, 16 in the Northern Territory, and 13 are in Western Australia.
To help his employer mark Harmony Day, Arabic-speaking staffer Ahmad El-Dik (pictured) explained his role with the MPS and how important it is to the people who use it:
“Some things said in English don’t translate well in Arabic, so I need to put together an example that better describes a scenario people can relate to and understand,” El-Dik said.
“When I was growing up we had a rule that Arabic was to be spoken at home and English at school so that my siblings and I were able to learn both.
“What I love about the language is that there are so many ways to describe things so that they have a really deep meaning and can be tailored.
“By taking calls in a language that a caller can better relate to makes them feel more comfortable and they can easily do their business.
“If we didn’t offer services to people in their preferred language a lot of people just wouldn’t know what to do. People really appreciate being able to call the Multilingual Phone Service and speak to someone in their preferred language.”
A separate channel, the free translation and interpreting service (131 450, 8am-5pm, Monday-Friday), helps translate information about human services into 230 different languages.
In 2017-18, the department used interpreters to assist with 800,000 interactions, either over the phone or in person.