How Can Interpreters Support Speakers of Indigenous Languages?

Photo by Armando Ramon Faur

A couple of months ago, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, I was faced with an uncommon challenge: I was interpreting for a non-English speaker and, as a Spanish interpreter, I was unable to provide them equitable access to information.

I should clarify that as a Spanish interpreter working in Southern California, I often come across speakers of indigenous languages. However, usually one or more of the participants are aware, and the services I provide are limited to confirming the next appointment when a qualified interpreter in the language they understand best will be available. In these instances, I am given an opportunity to truly partner with all participants to ensure the message is fully understood. This situation was different.

Sí, hablo español.

Unfortunately, as reported by Amnesty International, members of indigenous communities are often discriminated against and marginalized. Due to this, as Odilia Romero from CIELO has shared in various presentations, many speakers of indigenous languages may insist they are fluent in a more commonly spoken language like Spanish, despite having only limited proficiency in the language. This seemed to be the case for the individual I was hired to interpret for.

When the encountered started, the person moderating the conversation asked the non-English speaker to confirm what language they understood best. The speaker hesitated for a brief second and then said, "español" (Spanish). Luckily I did not have to intervene as all participants noticed the hesitation. The follow-up question: "do you speak any other language?"

The non-English speaker indicated that they spoke another language, but insisted: "Sí, hablo español" (Yes, I speak Spanish).

Speak up

The encounter continued in Spanish for a few minutes until the non-English speaker was asked a question, and there was no response. A few seconds later a minor accompanying the non-English speaker responded. The non-English speaker was prompted that the minor should not respond and asked again. Although the non-English speaker was able to respond the second time, I realized that my question had not been understood until after the minor's response hinted at the question. Although there are many regional variations of Spanish, I knew that my word choice was common enough that speakers of most variations would have understood, especially someone from the non-English speaker's country of origin.

Two questions later, the non-English speaker requested a repetition. At this point it was clear to me that either the register or language of my renditions was inadequate for the encounter. Normally I try to avoid intervening and allow the participants to overcome miscommunication, however, it was clear to me that I was picking up on something that the other participants were not. I decided to intervene.

Following Odilia Romero's advise, I stated—in both languages—that I believed my utterances in Spanish were not being fully understood and that perhaps an interpreter in the indigenous language that the non-English speaker understood best would be more effective.

I was lucky to be working with participants that understood the importance of providing effective communication. Although the non-English speaker was disappointed that services would be further delayed, the moderator was able to explain the importance of effective communication and utilized tools such as rephrasing and teach-back to ensure understanding.

As interpreters it is not only important that we understand the cultural backdrop and linguistic variations for each of our working languages, we must also familiarize ourselves with other potential challenges to effective communication and be prepared to tactfully recuse ourselves when we are not the most effective interpreter for the encounter. As Ms. Romero often teaches, the best way interpreters of common languages can support indigenous language speakers is by speaking up when an indigenous language interpreter is needed. Although services cannot always be delayed, as is the case in emergency medical situations, we can assist by partnering with an indigenous language interpreter over the phone to ensure effective communication.

Have you had a similar experience? How else could we support indigenous language speakers? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.


  1. I love this! When I think of interpreters I only think of the common languages, and I am sure I am not alone. Speaking up seems like the right thing to do, and articles like this one to bring awareness.
    Please keep them coming!


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