Language Justice

Hnub (Hannah) Pingxia was born in America of Hmong parents. The Hmong’s are an ethnic group from the mountains of Southeast Asia. Her parents had been recruited to the U.S. to help during the Vietnam War. The Hmong had their own language which they spoke at home. Hannah learned English at school and eventually taught her parents enough English so they could become naturalized citizens.

Hannah was very frustrated when she tried to help her parents register to vote for the first time. While the Hmong population in her voting area was huge, the translation from English to Hmong on the voter registration site was wrong. Although not intentional, the AI based translators were never vetted.

As a budding investigative journalist, Hannah decided to explore the ramifications of mistranslations on the internet. She decided to explore language translations for Asian and Pacific Islanders by enlisting volunteers for her research study.

What she found was very disturbing. Popular social media was filled with hate speech directed against Asian and Pacific Island Americans. While those who authored the hate speech invested in learned the language of the Hmong’s and other ethnic groups, social media behemoths did not.

The result was a proliferation of hate speech directed at Asian and Pacific Island Americans undetected by the filtering algorithms of the most often visited social media sites. Also these sites provided a steady stream of misinformation about voting and other aspects of civic life in America. The intent was to discourage participation in our democratic processes.

The American Bar Association describes language justice as a “framework that preserves people’s rights to communicate, understand, and to be understood in the language in which they prefer and feel most articulate and powerful.” We don’t often speak of language equity, but for many an absence of language equity is a serious challenge. Justice for all cannot be achieved if we cannot provide language equity.

Just imagine being threatened daily by unfiltered postings on social media sites you visit. Just imagine being misinformed about issues affecting you by intentional, unfiltered postings. Just imagine your imagine of living in America as shaped by those who don’t accept you as Americans. Language justice should be an important expectation of living in America, but unfortunately it is not.

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“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”  – Ludwig Wittgenstein (Philosopher)

(1)Ground Truth is what is actually happening in society rather than what is being said is happening.

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