Do You Speak Translate?

May 4th, 2017

Google Translate and the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA) have partnered to formally use the Google Translate App for refugee resettlement and new immigrant inclusion in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Launched on April 12, 2017, the We Speak Translate project engages community stakeholders, businesses, community agencies, institutions, and the public sector in Google Translate training. Upon completion of the 40-minute training, community stakeholders and partners will receive a We Speak Translate decal, a visible symbol of inclusion and Victoria’s commitment to promoting diversity and communication across language barriers. Google Translate training will also be provided to newcomer immigrants and refugees through ICA English language classes and other avenues. Familiarity with the Google Translate App will help to establish a common platform for communication while English language skills develop.

We spoke with Kate Longpre, ICA Community Integration Coordinator, to find out more about this innovative initiative, how the relationship with Google came together, and how the project can create more welcoming cities.

Why Google Translate? How did the partnership between ICA and Google come about?

Language is a key issue in settlement. It’s a challenge and potential barrier to integration and inclusion. I was researching settlement, integration and inclusion and started thinking about how we use technology as a tool for resettlement and integration.

I thought we could use Google Translate, both as an integration tool, and also a symbol for inclusive and diverse communities. I reached out to Google Translate and they liked the idea.

What is in it for Google? What’s in it for the settlement sector?

The idea that Google Translate could become a symbol for inclusion and welcome was new to them. They had a successful project at the Rio Olympics, where waiters and taxi drivers were trained to use the app with tourists.

Attaching their product to a broader mission, symbolizing integration and welcoming communities is a form of Corporate Social Responsibility to show how their technology tools and products can have deeper impact.

In the sector, I wasn’t seeing a lot in the field in terms of models of technology use for integration in resettlement in Canada. I was looking for innovative uses of technology to use in our work. Now, we’re continuously looking at how tech can be a tool in our work. For example, exploring social simulations and digital storytelling as tools to build awareness for Canadians about what it is like to go through a refugee or migration experience.

For both Google and the immigrant settlement sector, Google Translate as an integration tool can be replicated in any city, anywhere in the world. Google is global. If we are successful, they have the capacity to take it global.

Machine translation is still a work in progress, especially for more complex language or technical interactions. How do you see Google Translate being used as an effective settlement tool?

The project is bigger than machine translation. What could it symbolize in the community when everyone has the We Speak Translate decal in their windows? It’s a symbol that our city is a safe, accepting, welcoming place for newcomers.

Google Translate is not a perfect tool. It doesn’t allow for in-depth complex conversations at this point, but it can help bridge the initial language barrier to access services, businesses, and other points of contact in the community. Newcomers will know that if they go to a participating business or organization, the people there are familiar with the app and want to welcome and communicate better with them.

It is also an app that many newcomers are already familiar with and use. In some ways, we’re building familiarity among community stakeholders, to get trained and to use an app that can improve their interactions with newcomers.

More so than the app being perfect, it symbolizes to newcomers that this community welcomes them, accepts them and wants to communicate with then while they’re developing language skills. Language acquisition can take more time with some groups of newcomers. This tool can help bridge basic communication in the community.

I’ve used Google Translate in my own work. It becomes the moment in time when you connect with someone. The technology allows for that moment, rather than no connection. Community building takes place in that moment.

Have ICA staff started using Google Translate with clients? 

Most staff have Google Translate on their phones. We use it for basic communication at the front desk. It’s not the same as a translator/interpreter, but those services are not always accessible. We know that Google Translate can create quick and basic communication when it’s needed.

People in the community are looking for ways to support and assist with integration and inclusion. This is a very tangible initiative for any community member. They can wear a button on their coat that shows a newcomer that they’re are approachable, welcoming. It’s a tangible, no cost initiative for the community.

Residents of Victoria want to welcome people, and to help them feel welcome. This project won’t solve all integration and inclusion problems. But the app is easy enough to download, participants can take 45 minutes of training and they’re ready to be part of the newcomer integration and inclusion process.

We are a welcoming community, but it never hurts to demonstrate that overtly to our newcomers. If the We Speak Translate symbol becomes visible in business after business, it allows us to show newcomers that we are welcoming and inclusive.

Google Translate is fairly straightforward to use. What does the training involve?

On one hand, we’re creating power users. The training will include an orientation to Google Translate’s full capacity as a communication tool, how best to use the conversation function, how to use it offline if there isn’t an internet connection.

On the other hand, our goal is also to build awareness about resettlement, integration and inclusiveness. Training is an opportunity to connect with our community about integration and their role in it.

The project is a practical, low-cost initiative that will “improve cross cultural communication and integration of newcomers.” How will you measure success?

The community is already showing overwhelming interest. Over one hundred and twenty people have registered to attend the launch. Short term measures will include how many people/businesses/orgs take the training. How many We Speak Translate decals and symbols are visible in the community?

We’ll offer ongoing training. If a business wants to train staff and get decal for their storefront, we’ll train them and add another symbol of inclusion in the city. We’ll also train newcomers in level language classes to make sure they’re familiar with Google Translate, as a tool for them, and what the symbol means for them in the community.

As a human service organization, what have you learned about partnering with a technology company like Google?

It’s been about relationship building and trust, and recognizing that the project and partnership will evolve. Google has been very receptive to the partnership, but the process can take a long time. The responsibility was on us to be persistent and build trust.

The reality was that Google didn’t really need our organization to move this forward. They could launch this project in Europe and likely be successful. But they continued to work with us. Being able to pilot an integration project in our community has benefits for them. Being timely helped. With so many displaced people around the world, with stories about migration and refugees dominating the news, it was something they were interested in right away. I didn’t have to try hard to make the case.

Ultimately, there is value in approaching large companies with your ideas. Ask questions and develop a partnership that you are comfortable with. Our community is excited that a small organization like ours is partnering with an influential company like Google.

Read the ICA press release.

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