In our ever increasingly globalized world, language barriers often are a significant hindrance to the easy flow of goods and services. Therefore, countries have imposed various laws and regulations on businesses to ensure fair access to information on behalf of a multilingual customer base. The most popular countries nowadays to do business in include the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland, among a slew of others.
Whilst working abroad, going to the doctor, consulting a lawyer, signing contracts, and communicating in another language are unavoidable experiences. Therefore, it is imperative to know how countries incorporate translation services into these various aspects of daily life. Read on to find out how you can navigate global commerce hotspots most effectively as a foreign professional.
What Is the Purpose of Language Access Laws?
The first language access laws in the United States originated during the 1960s Civil Rights era, where legal milestones in racial, gender, and disability equity made headway. Immigrants with little proficiency in the English language were referred to as “Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals,” where both state and federal agencies tailored their information on issues such as health and safety to a level of English that is better understandable.
Besides immigrants, foreign business professionals are also in need of language access legislation. According to Statista, $697 billion US dollars accounted for business travel worldwide in 2022. Thus, the need for language access equity is more than apparent. The following sections focus on different regions around the world and how various countries have set legal codes for business translation services.
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North American Legal Codes
Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, as stated above, the United States saw language barrier-breaking legislation like Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, an executive order signed by President Clinton, and provisions added to the Affordable Care Act passed between the 1960s and early 2000s. This was all to ensure no LEP individual, most commonly found to be an immigrant, would face discrimination when seeking government services. This privilege naturally extends to foreign professionals temporarily visiting in the United States.
In the state of California, a law known as AB3254, passed in 2020, requires all contracts to be translated for businesspeople who primarily speak Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, or Korean. The Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act of 1973 mandated a “sufficient number of qualified bilingual persons in public contact positions or as interpreters” for local public agencies, in addition to making foreign-language reading material available.
Over on the East Coast, the 2022 New York State Language Access Law was implemented, ordering every single state agency to make its information and services accessible in any language. It also requires automatic translations of those agencies’ documents into the current 12 most widely-spoken foreign languages in the state.
Within Delaware, which has garnered praise as a top state for business activity, the legal courts must provide LEP individuals with certified interpreters and put bilingual employees in certain positions. The National Center for State Courts provides a further breakdown of all language access programs offered by each of the 50 states, which is useful in understanding your rights as a foreign professional wherever you travel.
Canada, a nation that officially speaks both English and French, provides all federal government services in both of these languages. The Law Society of Ontario adds that lawyers must be able speak, or find an interpreter without any conflict of interest who can translate, any language chosen by their client. The University of Ottawa asserts that Native American languages are also designated as “official” in certain Canadian territories like the Northwest and Nunavut.
Europe’s Language Access Climate
The European Union (EU), home to 24 official languages, naturally has a stake in overseeing language access equity within its borders. The EU’s language policy includes measures such as providing communication in all 24 languages and supplying educational tools for students to achieve fluency in three or more languages.
Additionally, there is a push for more youth to fully train as competent translators, all parliamentary documents and proceedings are translated into the official languages, and those who speak minority and endangered languages receive equal treatment and on-par services. Sign language communication is also a key factor in EU language policy, so as to ensure that the disabled enjoy equal access to government services.
Does ISO 17100:2015 ring any bells? This long line of code refers to a list of guidelines governing all translation services. ISO stands for the “International Organization for Standardization,” headquartered in Geneva, and encompasses representatives from 168 countries who submit suggestions that impact international translation standards.
In the United Kingdom (UK), language access equity is an underwhelming feat. As per a 2019 report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, the UK’s Home Office lacked sufficient language access services in the asylum process for migrants. A paper published by the University of Cambridge argues that sufficient language legislation exists but, unfortunately, the general public is not aware enough of their language access rights.
Even so, UK language access laws generally deal with the sectors of health and safety, education, and the justice system. The National Health Service provides adult translators and interpreters free of charge. Moreover, the British legal system guarantees any needed translation service for criminal defendants, as well as interpreters at every police station in the nation.
However, Eric Pickles, the UK’s former Communities Secretary, once advised Parliament that foreign translations for local government services only led to discouraging migrants from learning English. This sentiment is not particularly helpful for the legitimate case of language access equity. Also, current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has come under fire for stringent measures to curb the flow of migrants, even to the extent of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.
As a boon for social justice progress in the country, the UK Parliament recently introduced a bill categorizing British sign language as an official language. While it has not yet become law, such a measure as this indicates widening accessibility in terms of language and minority rights.
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A Look At Asian Laws
Countries like Japan, China, and Korea have long striven to be the new financial capitals of the world. Increased interest in their culture and media has helped achieve their goal through spurring tourism levels like never before.
In Japan, laws are regularly translated into foreign languages, and the Japan Tourism Agency provides regulations and standards for interpreters who act as guides for foreign visitors. The 2000 Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Common Language asserts that, while the national language is Mandarin with the standard Chinese character system, foreigners have every right to speak their mother tongue. The use of minority languages depends on regional governments.
In Hong Kong, a major global urban hub, the judiciary offers certified translation services for all court proceedings. Good news for professionals fluent in English or Chinese: the Hong Kong courts are all bilingual in both languages. This means English and Chinese speakers do not have to wait for interpreting services when participating in legal proceedings.
The Hong Kong Human Rights Commission, however, lamented in a 2008 report that the Race Discrimination Bill does little to give language access equity to speakers of minority languages, even though only a tiny fraction of the population speaks Chinese and around 60% knows English. Still, to this day, the Race Discrimination Bill does not explicitly guarantee equal language access rights.
On to the Middle East
It seems that there is a current gold rush happening in Dubai for all sorts of business opportunities. This bustling center of the United Arab Emirates holds Arabic as its only official language, but English is more often spoken. The Emirati courts thus mandate translations of court proceedings for non-Arabic speakers.
English can be found on everything from street signs to written documents in hospitals and banks. Even schools have started introducing bilingual curricula in both English and Arabic. While widespread use of English is a logical step, there is a worry that other world languages, and even the Emiratis’ indigenous Arabic, will be subsequently marginalized.
In Saudi Arabia, the government sees the Arabic language as an indisputable and necessary part of national identity. Al-Arabiya News reported in 2012 that the Saudi government obliged all commercial business to be conducted in Arabic. English could be a backup option, but punishment for not adhering to this language law is a fine and the possibility of a one-year suspension for business operations.
Earlier this year, the Saudi Shoura, which is an advisory council to the King, doubled down on legislating the daily use of Arabic. Aiming to “enhance the pride … in the use of the Arabic language,” the Shoura voted to require both governmental and nongovernmental organizations to use Arabic, in addition to creating an “integrated system” that encourages use of Arabic in all aspects of society.
Even so, many Saudis in the country have a good command of English. This is due to another government policy of schools teaching English as the only foreign language in their curriculum. While this is good news for English speakers, it will prove frustrating for other foreign professionals to smoothly conduct business in the nation.
There goes the same story in Qatar, another oil-rich Middle Eastern commerce hub: the Qatari government obliges all public and private sector activity to regularly utilize Arabic. This even goes to the extent that companies without an already established international reputation must take on Arabic names. Foreign translations on products are permissible, but the Arabic text has to be emphasized.
A Wrap Up
Language access laws are extremely important to know for any business professional travelling abroad. Having such laws means a safer journey, an enjoyable experience, and less risk to crime and fraud. In addition, hospital and police services are in closer reach, which is integral to a person’s wellbeing, especially in a foreign land.
Countries nowadays strive to be as accommodating as possible in order to attract good business and more direct investment. The United States and Canada have codified language access equity precisely for these reasons, and no wonder that they score high on rankings for business activity. Both nations have taken quite a forward-thinking approach by mandating foreign translations in all languages in sectors like medicine and the judiciary.
The European Union is also very progressive, most likely because it holds 24 official languages. Surely, the EU has had to learn how to balance out all these languages and guarantee each one fair representation in all its dealings. The nearby United Kingdom, on the other hand, has provided interpreting services before, but recent anti-migrant sentiment is casting a shadow over any past efforts to encourage foreign visitors.
Over in the Middle East, English is respected as a convenient language to speak, but the emphasis on Arabic for daily use takes precedence. Therefore, there will be trouble with attempting to merely communicate without any translator present. Even so, such a cosmopolitan setting as Dubai ensures that English, and other popular languages, are easy to come across.
All in all, the majority of the globe is fair game for any business venture. The key is ensuring safe and effective communication wherever you go, particularly by becoming accustomed to language access laws.
About the author: Althea Chokwe is a Masters student focusing on International Relations at Nottingham Trent University. She writes on a regular basis, interested in issues relating to society, global culture, the economy, and more. Althea also enjoys teaching herself languages and is aiming to become a polyglot. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.