Linguistic Competence

Linguistic competence is “the capacity of an organization and its personnel to communicate effectively, and convey information in a manner that is easily understood by diverse audiences including persons of limited English proficiency, those who have low literacy skills or are not literate, and individuals with disabilities.”1

Is your agency’s website translated well? Or does it suggest beating a moose? (Source: LifeBuzz)

Though linguistic competence may be easier to measure than cultural competence, due to the obvious intricacies of successful cross-cultural communication, linguistic competence often gets minimal attention or is even overlooked completely. Even though some documents may be translated, or an organization may have a couple of bilingual staff members, this alone will not likely meet the high standards set by the above definition of linguistic competence. True linguistic competence will result in persons with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) being able to understand written and oral communication just as well as a native English speaker with the same intellectual capabilities, though of course through a slower process when interpretive services are needed. When LEP clients come away from an interaction confused and frustrated because the translation efforts were insufficient, the service lacks proper linguistic competence.

To see how insufficient attempts at linguistic competence can result in clients feeling frustrated, view the video below, “‘Let it Go’ From Frozen According to Google Translate.”

In this video, song lyrics have been translated into various languages and then back into English to show the comically incorrect translations. Though the multiple layers of translating to various languages probably resulted in higher error rates than agency websites that use Google translation to serve LEP clients, it is important to note that even a few translation errors can result in a complete misunderstanding of the original message. For example, even the title of the song in this example was changed from “Let it go” to “Give up,” which carries a very different meaning. Agencies should be careful in fully understanding the strengths and weaknesses of any translation technology used in the interest of serving LEP clients well.

  1. Goode, T. & Jones, W. (2002). Definition of linguistic competence. Washington, DC: National Center for Cultural Competence, Georgetown University for Child and Human Development.
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