How Northeastern students aim to break college language barriers


“Talking in Languages 2.0” by zinjixmaggir is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Pavithra Rajesh

A student-led organization at Northeastern University is aiming to break language barriers for students and families who are non-native English speakers by translating information on university web pages from English into other languages.

The LANG Initiative (Language Accessibility of Northeastern COVID-19 Guidelines) was created in June this year out of concern that some community members may not understand important information about campus reopening, COVID-19 and continuing health guidance from the university, since official communication is only available in English.

A group of student translators, who are fluent in common foreign languages such as Chinese, Spanish and Hindi, are working with faculty advisors to translate that information for the public.

They see their effort as a critical resource, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our slogan, ‘The LANG Initiative – Born Out of Necessity,’ already tells us how important it is,” said Long Tieu Chung, a Vietnamese team translator and a third year business administration major.

The organization aims to help community members who struggle with English, including international students, immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and first-generation American students, as well as their families.

“They deserve to know our university administrative and emergency information so that they can make informed decisions, especially during this pandemic,” said Chung.

The LANG Initiative Poster. Photo courtesy: William Fleming

Co-founders William Fleming and Abbie Sedillos were inspired to create the LANG Initiative after attending a College of Social Sciences and Humanities virtual discussion called, “History Repeats Itself: Yellow Peril,” which covered the discrimination Asian and Pacific Islander communities faced in light of COVID-19. During the event, Fleming and Sedillos noted how participants were distressed over the lack of diverse linguistic resources at Northeastern.

“In far too many instances, we have an expectation that people should know English because it’s easy,” said Fleming, a first year security and resilience studies graduate student. “This is a misguided belief that harbors a level of insensitivity, or to speak bluntly, a sense of arrogance. Creating an initiative focused on language accessibility became the only option to help these affected groups, and we felt that Northeastern has not fully addressed this vulnerability that strikes our community.”

Currently, Northeastern does not provide translations on their official websites, including for their recent fall semester guidance that instructs students and parents about returning to campus and preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“Northeastern University touts itself as a global university, yet our international students and bilingual students have to face this invisible hurdle that can easily be fixed,” said Sedillos, a third year environmental studies and political science combined major. “If a student catches COVID-19, faces a medical or mental healthcare emergency, or needs to utilize NUPD or Title IX, [students and] family members should have the ability to navigate these resources instead of being left in the dark.”

There are different teams for each language. Each team consists of project managers who delegate assignments to student translators. Project managers review the translations once and then put them through a final check with faculty advisors who proofread the information.

The LANG Initiative poster. Photo courtesy: Mika Morikawa

“Our first priority consists of information that will be needed immediately during the fall semester,” said Fleming. “This includes translating COVID-19 information, information about Northeastern’s reopening plan, and pandemic-related emergency medical information. Our second priority consists of information that will always be necessary – information about medical and mental health care, NUPD, Title IX, and emergency contact information.”

With the onslaught of information from the university in the past few months, these students have been hard at work at a time when most students take a break from the college grind.

“I am impressed by how much work our volunteers have been putting on the translations during their summer vacation,” said Tania Muiño Loureiro, the Spanish team faculty advisor and an associate academic specialist in Spanish at CSSH. “[Everyone] has worked so hard and [has] been so disciplined.”

The LANG Initiative not only helps non-native English speakers, but the student translators themselves appreciate the opportunity to connect with their native tongues.

“This is a great chance for me to embrace my mother language,” said Wenting (Monica) Jia, the Chinese team project manager and a third year business administration major. “While translating, I am also practicing composing each sentence formally and avoiding usage of spoken Chinese. I start to understand that a clear translation is not simply built up on ‘good translating.’ I actually need to ‘re-write’ most of the context after carefully going through each sentence in the original documents and gaining a thorough understanding.”

Through the LANG Initiative, students may realize the daily roadblocks many Northeastern community members face with their discomfort of English.

“Language accessibility is something I’ve taken for granted my entire life – as someone whose native language is English,” said Sedillos. “I’ve never had to deal with the confusion and hurdles that non-native speakers must navigate. We want to shed a light on these all too common situations so that language accessibility becomes more commonplace on campus.”

Even though the group is already coordinating with the Office of Global Services to further their work, the LANG Initiative is “still waiting for approval from Northeastern to make [their] documents official,” said Jia.

“It’s been extremely hard to get the university to realize the importance of the project and coordinate with us,” said Hua Dong, the Chinese team faculty advisor and a senior academic specialist in Chinese at CSSH.

In response to what the university thinks about the organisation, Mike Woeste, senior media relations specialist, wrote in an email, “The Lang Initiative is a great student-led initiative, and OGS will work with them on making their translations available on the OGS website.”

The LANG Initiative team is aware that working directly with the university would be a major tool in pushing towards their goal.

“We want Northeastern University to put these translated resources on their official websites so people can have easy access to them,” said Sedillos. “We’ve made it simple for them. We aim for Northeastern to become a fully language accessible campus by ensuring that all important information is translated into the major languages spoken on campus before it is released.”

Ultimately, the LANG Initiative aims to foster an environment that encourages students to work towards granting equal accessibility to their own peers.

“The student body at Northeastern is incredibly talented and passionate in social justice and [supporting] each other,” said Dong. “I hope the wonderful work by all the 30-some student translators and faculty advisors would reach the greater community of Northeastern.”