How councils can better connect and communicate with linguistically diverse communities

By Varsha Kumar

May 6, 2021

New tech advances are bridging the linguistic gap for and community groups. (Image: Adobe/R. Gino Santa Maria)

With one in five Australians speaking a language other than English at home, new technological advances are bridging the linguistic gap, and community groups are netting the results.

In the 2016 Census, 4.9 million people reported speaking a language other than English at home. That’s one in five Australians. Twenty-six percent of Australians are now born overseas and almost half have at least one parent born overseas. Home to 100 religions and 300 ethnic groups, Australia is a melting pot of cultural diversity.

Notably, the Census also included 820,000 people self-reporting as speaking English “not well” or “not at all”, a rise of 3.5% (up from 2.8%) from the 2006 Census. With figures like these, it’s vital that government agencies explore how better to connect and communicate with these diverse communities.

The Maribyrnong City Council in Melbourne’s inner west places a high priority on effective communication with its culturally diverse citizens. According to Clem Gillings, the council’s Director of Community Services, Maribyrnong has one of Victoria’s most culturally diverse populations, with residents coming from more than 135 different countries and speaking more than 80 languages.

“We know that 42% of [local] residents speak a language other than English at home,” she said, “which is why it is so important that we are speaking to our community in their language.”

“Services such as Language Loop, the Translating Interpreting Services National (TIS) and Auslan Connections allow us to bridge this gap and ensure we are communicating effectively with all residents.”

Through breaking down language barriers and empowering communities to better communicate, more doors are opened. Better connections are made, and more people are reached more effectively with faster, more accurate communication. Across Australia, there isn’t a private or public sector enterprise which wouldn’t benefit from improving access for community members whose first language isn’t English.

New text-to-translator service technology is promising to further bridge the communication gap by enabling users to send and receive SMS in their mobile phone’s preferred language, instantly.

Jeeves.Plus co-founder and CEO David Hayes says the key to successfully communicating with non-English speaking people is quality translated communications, “… particularly regarding website and promotional content,” he says.

“Organisations need to make their messages meaningful to their target audiences, which means doing more than just making them available – they need to make them accessible.” Hayes says that a significant percentage of the community would benefit from local governments embracing this technology that’s now available to them, which he says has the potential to be a global game changer for community engagement.

“LGAs shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the available technology to engage a sector of the community in the languages they understand and can relate to, using the technology they’re comfortable with” he says.

“The first thing most immigrants arrange when arriving in Australia is a mobile phone. Why not make the most of the technology?”

In the Moreland City Council, found in Melbourne’s inner north, there is a similar demographic variety. Thirty-eight percent of people in the area speak a language other than English at home, including 10,336 Moreland residents with low or no English proficiency. In 2016, 34% of residents were born overseas. Of those residents, 87% were born in non-English-speaking countries.

Community outreach is important for the council, but according to Moreland Mayor and councillor Annalivia Carli Hannan, the council’s limited capacity means it cannot address all social issues at once.

“We, as a council, have limited resources so we need to prioritise the social issues we address and the communities we work with,” Councillor Hannan said. “The Human Rights Policy guides us to give precedence to groups which are recognised as being at greatest risk of exclusion from social, economic and political life because of access barriers and discrimination.

“This includes our commitment to migrant and refugee communities and for the cultural, religious and linguistic diversity of our city.”

Councillor Hannan said the two key communications challenges the policy is trying to address are to increase the proportion of the council’s communications output and methods that are inclusive, accessible and respond to a variety of communication needs, and to improve the Moreland communities’ understanding of council services.

With an understanding of the area’s great diversity within different language groups, Councillor Hannan says an outreach program has been undertaken.

“We have been speaking directly to representatives from these communities to learn how we can tailor messages to their needs, and what communication channels are best to reach them.”

She said they translate key resources and information, run targeted, in-language Facebook ads to different demographics, and have interpreter services available for community members who need to speak with a customer service representative in a language other than English.

“We work with community leaders to help disseminate vital public health and community engagement information to people with low or no English.

“The community leaders then tell the council what can be done to improve the message for their communities next time. We are constantly learning how to better tailor content to suit our community’s needs.”

Jeeves.Plus’ engagement platform utilises human operators — not bots — with automatic translation in 109 languages, essentially eliminating the need for all existing (and so often unreliable) translation services. Customer and community expectations are for information and service ‘on demand’, so once text messages are being translated in real time, these needs and expectations are immediately met, regardless of a person’s background or circumstances.

Cultural diversity is often cited as being one of Australia’s greatest strengths – so for government agencies, embracing this diversity through adopting readily available technology will be a win-win for communities across the country.


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