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The importance of multi-lingual access

Last week, I came home from getting my wisdom teeth pulled to be thrown into a crisis involving a close friend of mine online. They had texted to let me know they were experiencing some health problems a few minutes before I got out of my appointment. I called them through messenger and things took an immediately very bad turn and they stopped responding.

Living in the United States and speaking English means that I've experienced a lot of linguistic privilege in my life. I've never encountered an emergency in which I couldn't access services in a timely manner because of the language I speak, until now.

I called 911 and told them I needed emergency services for someone somewhere else on the globe. They looked up a number they had and put the call through. When the call was answered, the operator didn't speak English. Incredibly enough, they hung up on us. The 911 operator engaged the services of a translator and we gave it another shot. It turns out, emergency services also don't quite work the same way everywhere in the world. It took several calls to different places, one of which thought the call was a hoax and refused to send an ambulance before police services could go and have a look.

In all, it took about 15-20 agonizing minutes to finally get an ambulance sent to my friend's house.

This was a hugely eye opening experience for me. I've mostly passively supported multi-lingual access for a long time now. I've had a few conversations about it with people who have disagreed from time to time. But, my arguments were always as an outsider. This experience has brought the importance of language access to me in a whole new way.

We live in a world that is increasingly interconnected, with situations like mine happening more and more often thanks to internet friendships. But, it also plays out daily for some people, right where they live. This situation has left me with a deep empathy for people who are facing language barriers, because of geography, but even locally when faced with various anti-multi-lingual access attitudes that I grew up regularly exposed to, but not on the receiving end of.

I hope none of you have to experience the fear, helplessness, and frustration that I encountered last week. And, I also want to encourage you to think about language access in your own country, in your own city, wherever you live in the world. Not just for emergency cases, but for the everyday services people might be needing but forgoing at the thought of entering very frustrating situations and possibly facing linguistic prejudice.

It fills me with encouragement that this community is full of people who are learning another language for all sorts of reasons. And, it fills me with hope that not only will we learn languages for our own reasons, but that we will be more prone to being aware of and empathetic towards the language barriers that others can face. Maybe we might even want to help break down those barriers. Not everyone here has the linguistic privilege that I have. This experience isn't going to be news to you. But to others, it might be. I hope that all of us can work towards creating more access, and fewer barriers.

In total, I so far have shared six emergency-related true stories now.

  1. The importance of multi-lingual access
  2. Language community helps find blood transfusion for former Duolingo staffer
  3. Spanish in a Crisis
  4. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, Spanish came to our rescue
  5. In jail and denied language access
  6. Have you used your language skills in an emergency situation?.
September 27, 2016



I hope your friend is doing well, Usagi.

This is a problem I'm very familiar with. My mom works as a social worker in Chicago, where I'm from. Because of her background in social work and the fact that she speaks English and Spanish, much of her work is with Spanish-speakers with disabilities. She has told me countless stories about people who were seriously injured and sometimes permanently disabled because they didn't receive proper medical care due to the language barrier. Even in Chicago, a city where 25% of people speak Spanish (according to the 2008 ACS), the hospitals weren't always able to find a Spanish-speaking interpreter, or possibly didn't put the work in to find one, even though it's mandated in Illinois that hospitals provide interpreter services when requested.

This is a very real problem, and it's good that you're bringing it to light, even amidst unfortunate circumstances. Your post is very well written. I wonder if you could publish it elsewhere, so that more people could see it?


Thank you. I wrote it in a bit of a hurry actually, so, I'm really happy to know that it came out well.

I can't imagine where else I would submit it.


I can think of a few subreddits where it would be welcome, like /r/languagelearning, or even /r/duolingo...


Maybe just somewhere like Medium, where anyone can post. I think it would be a cool thing to be shared.


I also wish the best for you and your friend. I am amazed/impressed that your local 911 operator was willing able to help, albeit with some road bumps. I have had to do a couple of similar things-- call for a wellness check on someone in another part of the country, and also I had to call Italy to check on an online community member who was elderly, infirm and had not been heard from. In that case, I know a bit of the language, and was able to prepare by writing down some sentences so I could explain my situation without getting too flustered. It was definitely helpful to know enough Italian to be able to prepare some sentences and know they were not google-translate incoherent.


Oh wow. I can't imagine trying to recall another language under so much pressure! And, I'm really glad that you checked in on them. :)


Lovely article and I hope your friend is alright. The ambulance finally got there, so that's great. What language did the operator speak?


I hope they are alright too. I got a text the next day. But, nothing since. There could be a lot of reasons for that though. So, I'm just kinda of sitting with things at the moment.

I hope you don't mind, I don't want to give out anymore details about the situation than this. I have been purposely vague to protect their identity and privacy. :)


Of course, we do it's understandable. We're all pulling for you. Both of you.


Yeah, it's alright. I do understand that you don't want anyone tracking you. You have ought to always be careful.


Hope your friend is okay.


It fills me with pain that you had those soul destroying "...15-20 agonizing minutes to finally get an ambulance sent..." but joy that there is such a friend as you. Thank you for sharing this story showing the benefits of learning languages and of having good friends. May you and your friend always be well.


Hope your friend gets well soon!

[deactivated user]

    Amazing article! I hope your friend will be alright.

    It was nice that you were there for your friend and was able to help them.

    I had no idea how important stuff like this could be. Now I know.


    Wow... this shows the importance of communication, and how crucial it is to be able to communicate in today's world. I admire your dedication to your friend, and your ability and cool-headedness in handling the situation using your skills and knowledge.

    I'm also really grateful to you for helping me understand better what everyday skills and abilities I can acquire from my continued dedication to learning and enjoying foreign languages, as well as how will use them in life.

    Tell your friend good luck from the entire Duolingo community! We all really hope he/she will get better soon!


    My native language is in the top 5 of world languages, and yet, it's a minority language in my country. I read about people not being served in their native language about once a week on average, and it's one of the the official languages of the country!

    I simply can't understand the motivation of people who want to actively restrain services in languages other than their own (anything but English, or the most spoken language of their country)...


    God protect your friend . I hope s/he is doing well.

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