<img src="//bat.bing.com/action/0?ti=5257384&amp;Ver=2" height="0" width="0" style="display:none; visibility: hidden;"> What to Do if a 911 Caller Doesn't Speak English - Part Two


What to Do if a 911 Caller Doesn't Speak English - Part Two

Posted by Greg Holt on April 23, 2015

LanguageLine. 911. Emergency services and language access.In our previous post, we started out with an all too familiar situation 911 call takers in the United States face on a regular basis: trying to help limited English proficient (LEP) individuals in a crisis situation.

When we left our intrepid call taker, she was momentarily dreading the conversation to come because she knows that clear communication is the one thing offering hope to the caller at the other end of the line and the call can even be a matter of life and death. Yet, clear communication is exactly what’s being disrupted because of language and cultural issues that complicate calls.

We covered two common issues that LanguageLine Solutions 911 interpreters observed while working with LEP callers in emergency situations, and interpreters recommendations for overcoming those issues. And we’re going to cover three more of those issues in today’s post.

So we’ll leave that frustrated 911 call taker grimacing a little while longer and continue to review the issues at play. (Don’t worry, this is just an example so no one’s going to be harmed while you read the rest of this post…)

Issue #3: Mistrust of authorities

For any number of reasons, LEP callers may have a mistrust or fear of government authorities such as police officers. The callers may have grown up in an environment where local authorities were not always working in the public’s best interests, and bring those fears with them.

And, in some cases, the immigration status of the caller or other members of the household may also influence whether or not to call 911, because of fears (real or assumed) of deportation.

For all these reasons, it may be difficult for a LEP to freely offer up their full name, date of birth, address, and other personal information that a 911 call taker may request. The LEP caller often doesn’t understand why all this information is necessary and becomes suspicious. Lack of cooperation can slow down response times.

Interpreters suggested that whenever possible try explaining to the caller why the information is needed. By handling this in a friendly and helpful tone and treating the caller with respect, it can often allay their fears and encourage them to cooperate.

Issue #4: Language and dialect

Although, at LanguageLine Solutions, we’re comfortable saying our interpreters are among the very best in the world, their interpretation is still dependent upon the language skills of the caller.

Frequently, LEP callers request a language that may not be the caller’s primary language, but is more commonly spoken than their actual first language. When the caller is speaking a language that they are not fully proficient in, it creates communication challenges for the interpreter.

For example, an elderly immigrant who grew up in the 1940’s in Kazakhstan likely learned Russian as a second language since his country was part of the Soviet Union. Since then, he’s grown used to using Russian outside the house because it’s far more commonly understood around the world than his native Kazakh. But the fact is, Russian is not his first language, he learned it many years ago and no longer has occasions to practice Russian due to his advanced age and lifestyle.

As one of our Russian interpreters stated, “It is important to understand that a caller requesting a Russian interpreter may be a native speaker of one of 130 languages natively spoken in the territories of the former Soviet Union. These languages range from Russian (with various regional dialects spoken by about 125 million people) to Aleut (spoken by only about 100 people). An interpreter may have to deal with a wide range of accents, levels of Russian proficiency, great cultural variations -- with the added pressure of a 911 call.”

In this case, it may be very difficult for the Russian interpreter to get clear answers from an already upset or scared caller.

A French interpreter pointed out how common it is to interpret for LEP callers who are immigrants from French speaking African countries, where French may be taught in schools, but may be the caller’s second or third language.

Once again, patience is appreciated as the interpreter works to extract the information as quickly and clearly as possible. Sometimes, when the interpreter doesn’t understand the caller, clarifying vital information with a caller may sound like a side conversation. As the same Russian interpreter quoted above noted, “Some patience and understanding, along with a bit of trust in our professional skills, may actually speed the call along.”

Issue #5: Cultural differences in family roles and relationships

This can be a very touchy situation, and it’s admittedly difficult to try to be aware of all the traditions and beliefs that exist. But a general willingness to recognize that cultural differences do exist and can be worked through will lead to better and faster communication.

LanguageLine interpreters shared examples of cultural issues that may seem confusing, odd, or even patronizing by American standards, and that may directly impact an emergency conversation with a LEP caller. For instance:

In some households, such as traditional Turkish or Tamil families, males often play a dominant role. One interpreter noted that a woman may not be allowed to speak on her own behalf or may insist on checking with her husband before answering a question. If the husband happens to be the one injured or ill, this can create a very difficult situation as his wife is torn between a desire to help and going against her traditional upbringing.

Another interpreter noted that in a Punjabi household, the mother’s tendency will be to hide information that reflects poorly on her children. On the other hand, the father is far more likely to state all the facts regardless of the results.

In many African nations it’s customary to refer to close friends as “brother” or “sister”. So if one of these individuals calls 911 and states “my brother is hurt” it can’t be assumed he’s referring to one of his male siblings.

Exercising patience and understanding that cultural differences are at play may be the best way to navigate these situations. Trying to force someone to act against their culture will never speed up the interaction. Allowing the interpreter to explain the reasoning behind questions and to clarify answers will also help in getting past cultural differences to obtain the information needed to help.

Have you noticed a pattern?


The call taker takes another deep breath.

Call taker: “…I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Habla usted español?” (Do you speak Spanish?)

Caller: “Sí. Por favor, dése prisa!” (Yes. Please hurry!)

Call taker: “Un momento, por favor.” (One moment please.)

The call taker places the caller on a brief hold and immediately clicks the autodial button on her console to call LanguageLine Solutions. Her initial fear and stress drain away as the call goes through and she is instantly connected to a highly trained and experienced Spanish interpreter.

The LanguageLine interpreter has been through 911 training, has interpreted hundreds of the 3 million emergency calls Language Line receives each year. She knows what to expect and is confident she can help this call taker with whatever the emergency is.

As the call taker connects the LanguageLine interpreter to the caller, she actually smiles for a moment.

Everything’s going to be OK.

For help bridging this gap in your 911 call center, contact LanguageLine Solutions today.

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