CommunityConnect Labs

SMS, Chatbots and the Digital Language Divide: Best Practices for Multilingual Messaging

One in five Americans use a different language to speak at home. Even those who can speak English may feel more comfortable interacting and accessing information in their home language, a point that governments and healthcare systems must consider when providing not only translated content, but a variety of communications channels that may help individuals access information they fully understand.

At CCL, we are committed to language inclusion and have implemented SMS, virtual agent, and chatbot solutions in dozens of languages. We have developed a language translation process and refined our best practices in order to create high quality multilingual digital solutions that reach the most vulnerable, at risk populations. Here are our key tips when considering chatbots and SMS in multiple languages:

  • Clearly define your customers. This includes small segments of the population that may speak uncommon languages. Your program will demonstrate credibility and convey trustworthiness if all language speakers can access your content.
  • Develop your content in plain language.Technical jargon is difficult to understand in any language, and even more difficult to translate into multiple languages.
  • Localization counts. General translation requires adaptations depending on the communities served and dialects spoken. For example, Portuguese from Portugal can be quite different from Portuguese from Brazil. 
  • Use visual and audio aids. Images, videos or audio recordings can help low-literate individuals to fully understand the information.
  • Don’t rely entirely on machine translation. Technology certainly helps, but it should be paired with native human translators who can review, localize, and adjust.

Key takeaway from the field: When CCL worked with the Census Bureau to increase the number of people counted during the Decennial Census, our outreach messaging was translated into Vietnamese. One phrase that was translated was “human investigation.” Given the history of communist government visiting people’s homes in Vietnam and conducting harsh investigations in the 1970s, this wording would have been inappropriate and possibly offensive to some Vietnamese constituents. Our human translators caught the issue and changed the translation to be more culturally sensitive. 

CCL is committed to inclusion and to closing the digital language divide in any way possible. Our best practices are a work in progress, and we’ll continue to update our tips as we gather more learnings. We are an end to end digital messaging services organization focused on providing greater access to government and community services for the hardest to reach individuals and families across the US. Are you considering a text messaging, virtual agent, or chatbot solution for your program? Talk to us!


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