Young people in Santa Barbara, US, with ambitions to become interpreters are getting some early experience of the profession thanks to a new volunteering programme.

Wearing bright blue T-shirts so they can be easily spotted, the students are offering their language skills at back-to-school parents’ evenings across all campuses within the Santa Barbara Unified School District. According to the census, between 2007 and 2011 more than a third of the inhabitants of Santa Barbara County spoke a language other than English while at home.

Hundreds of students volunteered to be part of the project and received interpreter training to prepare for the Back-to-School Night events so they could help out. In addition to acting as interpreters between parents and teachers, the volunteers were also there to offer one-on-one support for students with limited English skills who attended the events.

Mitzy Perez, a senior at Dos Pueblos High School, told Noozhawk that the parents she assists are always quick to show their gratitude. “All the parents are like, ‘Thank you so much, it’s the first time I actually listened to everything’,” she explained.

The interpreter training the volunteers received, which was sponsored by Just Communities and parent group Padres Unidos, included teaching them to memorise technical terms used by education professionals. They were also taught how to continue interpreting even when they weren’t sure of the exact translation of a word, by using more words to describe what the teacher is saying in order to keep the conversation flowing.

“So far all the teachers have really been liking this idea, and they’re willing to slow down or stop while I am interpreting,” said Miss Perez. Indeed, so successful has the project been that there are now plans to roll it out on a wider scale so that there are interpreters present at many more school events rather than only Back-to-School evenings. It is not only the practical benefits of having the students present that have been praised, but also the way they are acting as role models. All of the volunteers are bilingual and their presence at the evenings demonstrates the value of multi-language skills.

The fact the parents are able to understand every word the teachers are saying clearly makes these events more useful than they were without the assistance of the student interpreters. The scheme helps to illustrate how important language services are within the public sector.

Hospitals and doctors’ surgeries across the UK are increasingly realising the importance of being able to offer the services of an interpreter to their patients. It is vital that patients can understand what a doctor is saying to them, so that they correctly appreciate both their diagnosis and treatment plan. A language barrier could result in them not taking their prescription correctly, missing treatments and their health deteriorating.

Having a bilingual family member present to bridge the language divide between patient and doctor can be useful. Writing for last year, Kiran Gupta, a resident at the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts, revealed that she had always struggled to communicate with one patient, whose health did not seem to improve on the treatment she prescribed. She suspected he was not taking his prescription correctly, yet the interpreter always repeated what she was saying and her patient seemed to understand. Eventually, Dr Gupta asked her patient’s daughter to accompany her father to his hospital visits. It transpired that the patient had not been taking his medicine correctly due to his cultural beliefs, but his daughter was able to engage him in conversation with his doctor, voice his concerns and ask questions for him. As a result, his health improved.

Bilingual relatives or friends are often relied upon to act as interpreters at hospitals. However, the medical industry should never rely solely on these volunteers. Because the information being given is so technical, anyone who is not a trained medical interpreter will struggle to translate it correctly. Added to that is the possibility that the go-between may filter or edit the information they are supposed to be passing on, or that their own emotions will mean they are unable to take it in and process it correctly.