Speak slowly please! – advice and English lessons

London is a great melting pot of people from all over the world. There is an extraordinary richness of languages spoken. For large numbers of people in London, however, their lack of command of the host language can be a barrier for exercising basic rights and accessing justice.

AdviceUK Consulting’s Dal Warburton and Enrique Saenz explore the question of language and diversity.

AdviceUK member the Lewisham Multilingual Advice Service (LMLAS) exemplifies the grassroots community response to the needs that surrounds it in its’ urban landscape. LMLAS’ unique role and very popular service and great leadership have enabled the project to become a thriving independent organisation, sustainable through attracting funding from a wide variety of sources.

The organisation delivers a range of social and welfare advice services in 14 community languages in Lewisham, which is the 15th most ethnically diverse borough nationally! It is the only such service for miles around.

Key to LMLAS’ success is its self-conscious and ongoing review of what it does and what difference it makes to ensure that it remains relevant to the non-English speaking communities in Lewisham that are in continual flux.

Insights gained by AdviceUK through its members’ amazing and varied experiences (for example, when working with LMLAS recently on a Strength Review of the organisation) can bring connectivity and sharing of different responses to different but linked issues.

The Greater London Authority (GLA), for example, has found that amongst London communities, barriers to social integration and independence are caused by English language difficulties; without a common language, relationships, participation and equality are limited, says the London Mayor. GLA has reinvigorated the activities of its Migrants and Refugees Advisory Panel (MRAP) over the last 12 months; it also has published its Social Integration Strategy.

A good showcase of MRAP’s work worth citing was presented at its most recent summer meeting of the Erasmus+ VIME Project, which is focused on the use of volunteers to add value to migrant adult language and literacy learning. We heard that Migrants seek to learn their host community language to help with their daily lives, to access services, support their children, to find work and for many other reasons.

There is a clear connection here for many organisations in AUK membership. It comes from the added role that advisors can play as language buddies/ befrienders when helping non-English speakers that they support; the interactions help clients gain use of key English words and terms relating to their social and individual rights, to understand or respond to correspondence, completing forms, translating documents or verbal interpreting, navigating websites or whilst advocating for and/or representing them. The VIME+ Erasmus project seeks ways for the various language educating parties to better contribute to more joined-up pathways for learners. AdviceUK members working with non-English speakers can contribute opening language competence pathways to people they support.

Another member of AdviceUK, the Centre for Access to Justice at University College London, has recognised that many individuals seeking legal advice do not speak English as their first language and may struggle with some of the legal terminology; this has led to setting up the Ad Hoc Volunteer Interpreters/Translators Scheme, encouraging UCL Laws students to volunteer as interpreters during advice sessions. This provides the students with an excellent opportunity to see the Centre’s advisers in action, giving advice on housing, welfare benefits, community care and education issues.

In the case of LMLAS, they have developed an innovative scheme to involve bilingual students from the local college who are engaged in interpreting and translation learning and can offer support in their own language and in English. Paradoxically, from the work we did supporting LMLAS we learnt that what matters most to their clients is getting help and advice in their own language. When evaluating advice services, one of the key questions we ask is ‘how do you know what really matters to the people you advise?’  LMLAS’s Strength Review showed clearly that getting help and advice in their own language was a really important motivation for approaching the organisation.

Do you have experiences that you would like to share of how advice giving can link up to empowering clients with the use of English, as a means to exercise their rights and be more independent? We want to hear from you! Get in touch via consulting@adviceuk.org.uk 

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