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The Importance of Language Access

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Our Views on Language Access

Language access is an essential part of ensuring no survivor is left out of conversations of healing, support, and prevention. Language justice, the right of survivors to communicate in the language that is most comfortable for them, is necessary for changing systems and social norms that will ultimately prevent the root causes of sexual violence. Language access is the act of enacting that right by offering inclusive services.

Doing the work of language access means  eliminating organizational barriers that prevent people who do not speak English as their primary language and/or  who have a limited ability or an inability to speak, understand, read or write English (limited English proficiency “LEP”) from fully utilizing, participating in, and contributing to programs and services. 

English proficient advocates and survivors access resources through print media and social media, in person and online, via telephone, webinar, web-based virtual meeting software, etc. Ensuring that advocates and survivors with limited English proficiency, hearing impairments, and deafness are also able to access our resources is a process of organizational change and capacity-building that we are committed to continuing forever.

We must all think about the work of sexual violence prevention in terms of language access.

Words and meanings around sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault (collectively referred to as sexual violence), look and sound very different in different languages and cultures. As such, we cannot talk about sexual violence the same way in every language because many of the terms and concepts used in English do not translate to other languages. Words and meanings around sexual violence also look very different among cultures who share language. We strive to be mindful of the connections among spoken and visual language, culture, religion, and nationality, and the ways in which survivors tell their own stories in their own words, languages, and modes of self expression.


Facts on Linguistic Diversity in the United States

According to the Commission on Language Learning, there are more than 350 languages utilized across the United States, including 169 Native American and Native Alaskan Indigenous languages.  The second largest language spoken is Spanish, with two out of every three non-English speakers speaking Spanish.   The United States is home to many linguistic enclaves- areas or neighborhoods where the majority of people speak a language other than English.  In many areas of the United States English is the only language spoken by more than 95% of the population.  In other parts of the county a language other than English is the primary language for more than half the population. The below lists showcases languages spoken (at home) other than English in the United States by number of speakers in 2020

Spanish                                                      40,537,337

Chinese (incl. Mandarin, Cantonese)         3,429,292

Tagalog (incl. Filipino)                                1,712,452

Vietnamese                                                1,528,587

Arabic                                                         1,248,652

French (incl. Cajun)                                    1,209,540

Korean                                                        1,093,097

Russian                                                       942,945

German                                                       881,159

Haitian                                                         851,172

*data provided by Statista


This list is in no way exhaustive and can also be an incorrect indicator of a particular demographic in a local community context. For example, in the city of Minneapolis (home to over 100 diverse non-English language communities), the ten most common languages spoken at home after English and Spanish are:






Patois & Cajun French






 Doing language access work, we must always be aware not only of national trends but of the voices within the communities we serve and be sure to provide your services in the languages that your community speaks. Linguistic minorities in the United States like these are often the most at-risk for not receiving help and support in times of crisis due to linguistic and cultural barriers. 


Accessibility Within Language Groups

Another important segment of society to consider and accommodate for are low-literacy or visually-impaired individuals and communities.

According to The Literacy Project, the average American reads at a 7th grade level. However, given that this is an average, a large portion of the population therefore has a lower level, or identifies as not literate. In fact, 54% of Americans between 16-74 years old ( nearly 130 million people) read below a sixth-grade level. This means the majority of the general population may not be able to comprehend materials written at a 7th grade level- yet another barrier of access to receiving support, intervention, and aid.

A person’s literacy level is not a reflection of their intelligence. It’s also not an indicator of laziness or a lack of motivation. Many individuals facing illiteracy did not have opportunities to learn, and are more likely to have been born into cycles of poverty. However, many people with a low literacy level may feel  a large degree of shame and fear of judgment to the point that survivors are unlikely to outwardly express “I don’t understand what this means” or “I don’t read very well.” Assumptions about a survivor's literary ability  should never be made.  We should assume the reality that many folks are not receiving the help they need because they fall into a low-literacy category which has gone unconsidered.


American Sign Language

Language does not just pertain to the spoken word. It is vital to be aware that up to 500,000 Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing people use ASL throughout the country. While the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) has mandated that members of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing communities must have access to accommodations such as interpreters, many within those communities still face obstacles. From police misinterpreting signing as an aggressive gesture and not responding verbally to commands as resisting orders to the substantial inadequacy in health literacy found in signers, there are clear systemic issues in the way of properly communicating to these socially marginalized groups. Furthermore, since there is no universal sign language, barriers to adequate communication are even more strained for Deaf refugees. 

There is more work to be done in the service of providing adequate accommodation, which is why it is important to counteract the audist tendencies in our systems through collaboration with affected community members.


Black ASL

A lesser known aspect of ASL is the dialect referred to as Black ASL. Due to the United States’ history of racially segregated schools, Black signers learned ASL in different spaces than White signers and consequently developed their own unique dialect. This can and has resulted in confusion between Black and White signers due to differences in words or phrases as well as a lack of understanding of differing cultural contexts. Nine in 10 ASL interpreters are White and 87 percent are women.  This is emblematic of a larger issue. When working in language interpretation and translation circles, it is absolutely imperative to provide interpreters and translators with cultural awareness training in order to maintain the integrity of the messaging communicated by people of all different backgrounds.


“No More” doesn’t come with an exception

When sexual assault prevention materials or rape crisis intervention services aren’t made accessible to any given member of the community regardless of their language and culture, it not only undermines our collective mission to end sexual violence everywhere- its perpetrates forms of symbolic violence through ethnocentric, xenophobic, ableist, and racist practices. When we imagine that the default victim is a white, college educated, standard English speaking, hearing, neurotypical individual, we create a biased standard whereby we create a stereotype for who victims are, and what they look and sound like. As a result, we concentrate resources, aid, intervention, and healing towards historically privileged populations, perpetuating inequality and contributing to cycles of violence and injustice. 



SART Toolkit Section 6.3 | National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Language Justice Groups Directory - Collectivizing Language Justice

Language Access Hub - Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence Website

Survivors with Limited English Proficiency: Research

Providing meaningful language access: A Hub 

Language access home - Esperanza United

Online Learning - End Abuse of People with Disabilities

Culture, Language, and Access: Key Considerations for Serving Deaf Survivors of Domestic and Sexual Violence

Related Resources
Additional Details

*Portions of text were taken from the NSVRC Language Access Working Group Manual