Students tear down language barriers

24 September 2012

Those who need to make a visit to the authorities, but are afraid that their German language skills are insufficient can now turn to the interpreter pool in the Germersheim region. Thirty students of the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) help during interviews with social services, the youth welfare office, and other government authorities. The interpreter pool was set up in early 2012; the Rhineland-Palatinate Commissioner for Integration will finance the project in 2013.

An Albanian woman has sought refuge in a women's shelter. While it is clear that she needs help, she can't make herself understood. She literally cannot find the words because she doesn't speak any German. The same applies to a refugee from Syria. Speechless and helpless he faces the officials who simply have no idea how to alleviate his distress. And a Turkish woman is so embarrassed that she cannot understand anything during her pregnancy consultation that all she does is nod her head throughout. What follows is a series of misunderstandings. And then the youth welfare office comes knocking at her door.

The Germersheim interpreter pool was able to help in all of these cases. The project, run by students of the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), was started in January 2012. Professor Dr. Bernd Meyer supervises the young interpreters. The pool is the ideal complement to his specialization: Intercultural communication.

It started slowly

"We are on our way to becoming a brand," says Meyer confidently. The students have already gone out on more than 60 calls and demand is growing steadily. But it all started rather slowly. "At first, they weren't exactly breaking down our doors to get in," recalls Meyer. "We started out with a cooperation with the youth welfare service in Germersheim." The social workers wanted to know whether they could, just for once, use the language expertise of the future interpreters. It was this that resulted in the inception of the interpreter pool.

"When it comes to contact with us, the staff at different authorities and offices and advice centers tended to be hesitant at first," explains Feyza Evrin. She works as a student assistant and coordinates the pool's assignments. "They seem to think it will involve a lot of bureaucracy, will require the filling in of forms, and will involve a great deal of expenses. Once they find out how uncomplicated it is, they come back for more."

It is uncomplicated

Those interested in using the pool's services need to get in contact at least 24 hours before the interpreter will be needed. The services are supplied free of charge as the students work voluntarily in the pool. All they get in return is an internship certificate that counts towards their Bachelor’s or Master's degree.

This straightforward process has aroused the interest of other institutions. The Caritas Speyer charity organization and the immigration officer in Landau have requested the pool's services. "Actually, we wanted to limit our assignments to the Germersheim/Speyer region," explains Meyer. "But when the Mayor of Landau said that they would cover our travel expenses, we had no reason to decline."

The range of languages on offer is vast: Albanian, Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, Italian, North Kurdish, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish are all available. It is primarily native speakers who go on the assignments.

The problem is most often misunderstanding

Derya Karadal comes from Turkey. The student has been out on three assignments, two of which were for the youth welfare office. "A child that was supposed to start school missed the appointment with the school doctor." A youth welfare official then made a house call with the help of Karadal. "It's really quite intrusive when you start visiting people in their homes," says the student.

"I had to make it clear to the family how important the appointment with the doctor was." Hardly anything else was needed. Karadal and her head scarf not only removed the language barrier but also some cultural ones as well. "The family was very happy that I had come along."

There was also a similar case involving the failure to keep a doctor's appointment. "It quickly became clear that the problem was a failure of communication between the various government offices. It wasn't the fault of the people in question."

A lack of the appropriate attitude

In the face of such occurrences, Karadal has become convinced of the importance of her work. "It is really great to be able to help people and I have benefited a lot. If I had taken on another form of internship, I might have just ended up making coffee and performing tasks that have nothing to do with my studies."

"It is all very strange," says a puzzled Meyer. "In court, people automatically have the right to an interpreter if they can't speak German. However, interpreters are not made available for other similarly important official appointments. A common mindset seems to be that these people should take the trouble to learn German first."

But an attitude such as this only fosters misunderstanding and conflict. "And this view is often shared by people who have never had to properly learn a foreign language. It is really no easy thing to learn German in your spare time if you are having to hold down a tough job."

Things are changing at the Caritas charity organization

"There is a different attitude in those institutions that we work with," Evrin confides. "They are actively concerned about this problem." And they book the assistants from the Germersheim interpreter pool. "At Caritas Speyer they went so far as to introduce a new appointment booking system."

Prior to a visit, Caritas employees now complete a checklist in which they indicate whether an interpreter will be needed or not. "This is clearly attributable to our pool," says Meyer. "Such a procedure would not have been possible without our help." Caritas cannot usually call on interpreters all that frequently as their budget is too tight. "So we are not taking work away from professional interpreters. This is also something we consider important."

There is not enough money for 2013

There are currently 30 students in the pool. They undergo a lot of training: Officials from the youth welfare office and Caritas regularly call by; there are simulated interview situations and much more. JGU has provided funding up until the end of September 2012 so that student assistant Evrin can continue to coordinate appointments until then. "With a bit of improvisation, we should be able carry on to the end of the year. But then we'll definitely need financial support," Meyer warns.

With a bit of luck this is coming: The Rhineland-Palatinate Commissioner for Integration held out the prospect of financial support worth 10,000 euro for running the project throughout 2013. "I think our work should be worth that to society. We help public insitutions so that they are able to accomplish their tasks," says Meyer. The students are ready and willing to continue, as is Meyer. And almost all their work is done on a voluntary basis. All that is needed is a little support if the interpreter pool is to continue with its work.