At the Nationalities Services Center, Akbar Ahmadzai can help native speakers of 150 languages better understand English. Ahmadzai, the director of language access and proficiency, oversees two programs: NSC’s year-round ESL classes and its interpretation and translation program.
Annually, he said NSC helps more than 5,000 people with English proficiency.
NSC project managers and independent contractors will translate documents for non-English speakers and assist immigrants while they access health care and other services in the city. For example, they’ll interpret while an immigrant schedules a doctor’s appointment. City departments have also recruited NSC interpreters for community meetings, Ahmadzai said.
Ahmadzai immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan about two years ago. Due to his prior work for international agencies, he had proficient English and sought out a way to apply his skills to help others.
What are the most common languages that people need help with?
Spanish, Chinese, definitely. They’re always at the top. … Then, Vietnamese, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese are some of the other common languages.
How long has this been a part of the Nationalities Services Center?
For decades. I think back in the 1970s was when this first started. We saw a need for it, for serving this community who still needs to learn English, but they still needed services. We realized that we do need to provide this service to help them access those public services.
For immigrants entering the country who don’t have strong English skills, how does that impact their experience?
I can talk about the interpretation and translation part of it. In terms of language, language barriers, it’s huge. Not only that, you might be able to speak some English, but still it’s familiarity with some of these systems that exist here. For example, with health care, you have to schedule an appointment through calling and following the instructions on your phone, which — if you’re new — you need that time to learn how those things work. That could be a challenge. Not only language, but also learning how things work here.
I just want to reiterate how important those services are to those communities who are going through this journey of integration into the United States. English is the foundation. You have to learn English to be able to integrate into the communities and do your part. While you take the time to learn your English, but at the same time have access to these public and social services, it is very important for the service providers to take that into account, to make sure that they do provide that service to people when they need it.
– Text and photos by Grace Shallow.