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Overcoming Language Barriers

Human trafficking survivors speak many different languages. The ability to communicate can be a significant barrier when a task force is working with foreign national trafficking survivors. People also forget that many U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and American Indians also have limited English proficiency (LEP); that is, they do not speak English as their primary language, and they identify themselves as having a limited capability to read, write, speak, or understand the English language. Many observers forget that language access includes working with individuals who have disabilities, including those who may require the assistance of sign language interpreters. For additional information, see Chapter 4.5, Victims with Physical, Cognitive, or Emotional Disabilities.


Task forces have legal obligations to establish language access plans and offer access to interpreters. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating based on national origin by, among other things, failing to provide meaningful language access to individuals who have LEP. In addition, many state and local ordinances mandate language access, and task forces need to comply with such requirements. It is important for task forces to plan how they will ensure that trafficking victims with LEP can properly access services and can accurately and safely report their cases to law enforcement.

It is particularly important for task forces to develop language access plans that detail how to access interpreters for their work. Aside from legal obligations, it is important that the information gleaned from trafficking survivors and other witnesses is obtained through a neutral interpreter so that there can be no confusion (or later arguments) that the information obtained was inaccurate because of biased interpretation.

Developing a language access plan beyond a telephonic language line is important. While telephonic language lines are helpful and useful, they limit the ability of the interpreter to assess facial and body language as well as connect with the trafficking survivor using nonverbal cues to facilitate the most accurate form of interpretation.

For additional information and tools, see Resources Chapter 3.4, Addressing Common Operational Challenges.