How to interview, report on immigrants when you don’t speak their language

Growing up, I discovered the easiest way to get rid of someone soliciting from door to door: Just say your family doesn’t speak English. Most visitors turned away quickly.

Occasionally, a church group would really persist and invite themselves in. After some awkwardness, they managed to communicate with us, even though my parents’ preferred language was Vietnamese. They used me as a translator, showed books with photos and after patiently sitting around for a couple of hours, found out that my father did speak a little English, albeit slowly and shyly.

Many journalists could take some inspiration from those Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses who visited our North Carolina home. Immigrant communities are rich with stories, but reporters often cite language as an obstacle.

Tom Huang, assistant managing editor for Sunday and enterprise at the Dallas Morning News, told me that some reporters he’s supervised have assumed they wouldn’t be able to get much information. In truth, he said, they feel uncomfortable. “It’s fear of the unknown,” he said.

Hiring more bilingual reporters is one solution for media outlets. But that has limitations, too. In many communities, dozens of languages are spoken, from Arabic to Yiddish. Moreover, reporting on people who don’t speak English shouldn’t be handed off as the responsibility of one or two journalists. Immigrants are important sources for every beat, from city government to public health to religion.

Here are some ways to maneuver around the language barrier:

Realize that there may be more English speakers than you think.

Being an immigrant doesn’t mean a person doesn’t speak English. As a reporter for The Washington Post, I wanted to do a story about Koreans immigrating to suburban Maryland so their kids could attend the well-regarded public schools.

I worried about my ability to do an in-depth story about a family with an interpreter tagging along for hours at a time. But eventually, I found a family in which both father and mother spoke English — they had been educated at American universities years ago.

Seek out long-time residents and younger people as “cultural brokers.”

Use them to help you get an overview of the community, brainstorm story ideas and meet others. Many immigrants who have lived in the community longest serve as church leaders, social workers or hired translators at nonprofits and governments. They’re often trusted by other residents and can smooth the way for you. On the other end, the younger people provide a different perspective. The generational divide is a terrific narrative thread.

Many reporters, including myself, have also used community leaders or young people as translators. This should be done with some caution. Be aware that some people may have self-interests or conflicts — as in any reporting situation. Teenagers, for example, might not tell you everything their parents are saying — that’s a fact that crosses all cultures.

Take your time.

The longer you’re with people, the more comfortable they’ll feel. In-person visits are infinitely better than on-phone interviews because you can see and respond to the source’s body language. Multiple visits are essential for more complicated stories. Shajia Ahmad of the Garden City Telegram in Kansas, who has reported on Burmese and Somali immigrants, said she doesn’t bring in a photographer until after she’s visited several times. Her theory is that most families probably prefer one stranger in their home at a time.

Spending time with sources is also important for the sake of accuracy. You might need to go over a point several times, to make sure you understand it correctly. WCCO-TV in Minneapolis recently aired a story saying that a New York City Chinese-owned market was selling dog meat from Minnesota.

The employee that a reporter interviewed by phone likely meant “duck” not “dog,” but the station ran with the story anyway. New York inspectors found no basis for the allegations, and the story has since been erased from WCCO’s website. News Director Michael Caputa acknowledges the station was wrong, but still seems to be defending the story. “The person we spoke to said he didn’t speak English, but then gave an interview in English,” he wrote in a staff memo.

Use your other senses.

Reporting shouldn’t be limited to interviewing. Look at what’s on their walls. Notice their gestures. What type of music is playing? What type of photos or written materials can they show you?

Sometimes, I’ve used what I notice in someone’s home as an icebreaker. People talk more openly and are less embarrassed about their language abilities when they’re at ease. When I asked one woman to tell me about the family pictures on her shelves, she lit up. By the time she got to the last photo, she was even comfortable enough to tell me that it was of the daughter she had left behind in El Salvador. The years of distance had made them strangers.

Matt O’Brien of the Contra Costa Times told me via email that he relied on his observations when he interviewed an elderly Taiwanese immigrant through a community worker. He noticed her family looking uncomfortable at the woman’s responses and then moved the interview to another room.

Develop a network of translators.

Reporters I know have depended on friends, parents or colleagues at other newsrooms. Alhambra Source, an online news site in southern California, taps into a team of more than 30 community volunteers. The site, a project of the University of Southern California’s journalism school, publishes in three languages — English, Spanish and Chinese. The volunteers serve as citizen reporters and translators, and they’re given credit at the end of stories.

Daniela Gerson, the site’s editor, has relied on the volunteers to help report on stories such as a health center serving elderly Chinese that is facing budget cuts. (Gerson speaks Spanish, but not Chinese.)

She wondered whether other media outlets could use community translators just as they ask citizen reporters for news and photos. “We’ve found that people really want to help us,” Gerson told me in an interview. “People value that they’re able to provide a bridge to their community.”

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  • Anonymous

    I agree with Jack,

    I saw your article,I’m a student and let me share to you what I have right now.

    I have this app on my iPhone called speechtrans that let me communicate
    with people with different languages. this is the
    website http://speechtrans.com/ this app help me to my language class.and
    also eliminate language barrier. i hope this will help student like me
    because its a great help for esl student, for me its consider a educational
    tool . and it really save you cash than hiring someone to translate it for
    you. hope this helps

  • Rafuse Jack

    I think we have to use new technologies to bridge the language barriers. SpeechTrans is the world’s
    most advanced speech-to-speech translator. SpeechTrans enables
    the user to have a coherent conversation with someone who speaks a foreign
    language without the need for an interpreter.

    Thanks,

     Jack (http://speechtrans.com)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for correcting the error about Cantonese in the article above. It’s great that you folks read comments and take them to heart. Most news organizations append a note, however, to indicate when and how articles are changed. This should be the norm at Poynter as well. Again, great work highlighting both a problem and potential solutions for journalists working with non-English speaking sources.

  • Anonymous

    Great story about encouraging journalists to reach out for language help where they can. Two quick corrections, though, about Alhambra Source. The site is excellent and should be a model for other hyperlocal journalism efforts. The site doesn’t publish in Cantonese, however. Cantonese is a spoken dialect. The written form of Cantonese, though, is Chinese.

    Even so, the site doesn’t really publish in Chinese. It does offer a button that uses Google Translate to render the English of the site into either Spanish or Chinese. Anyone can do this for any webpage, but Alhambra Source has made it really easy to use the Google Translate tool. Machine translation is impressive but still ragged and often incomplete or incorrect. Moreover, the site only offers a link to the Google Translate simplified Chinese version. Since many of those in Alhambra are recent immigrants from the mainland where simplified Chinese is the norm, this option would be helpful. The current link is to traditional Chinese characters, which are used in Taiwan and in Hong Kong (and in most Chinese newspapers published in the US). It would only take another link to do this. Google’s computers actually handle the switch quite easily.

    I like that Alhambra Source has “about us” and “contact us” pages in Chinese. That encourages local residents to share story ideas.