Non-English speakers’ access to emergency services in Australia is in the news again as a Melbourne man has been convicted of the murder of his wife. What makes the case particularly shocking is the fact that the victim, who was originally from Afghanistan, tried to call police a few days before the murder but couldn’t make herself understood because of her lack of English. She hung up while the operator tried to find a telephone interpreter and police never followed up. Previously, the victim had also spoken to a family violence officer and a health worker about her abusive husband:
Ms Rahimi, who spoke little English and communicated through an interpreter, had told a family violence officer and a health worker that she wanted to leave the marriage, but that she felt powerless, unsupported and fearful. (quoted from another newspaper article about the case)
So, the victim had sought help on at least three different occasions (family violence officer; health worker; telephone emergency service) – domestic violence help that is readily available in this country. However, she failed to gain access to the help she sought (and clearly needed as her murder tragically evidences). She failed to gain access to such help because her English was not good enough for that purpose.
The comments on the SunHerald site mostly offer an easy answer: she should have learnt English! I was rather shocked to find that – seemingly a world away – a report about a multilingual domestic violence hotline in Seattle, USA, draws exactly the same kind of hateful comments: the general tenor of the posted comments there, too, is that, rather than providing multilingual services, migrants should learn enough English so that they don’t need those services. Unfortunately, all of us in language teaching know that it’s not that easy and that the injunction to learn English can be completely meaningless, as it obviously was in Ms Rahimi’s case, who seems to have struggled on so many domestic fronts that attending English classes probably simply figured fairly low on her needs pyramid: when you are struggling to survive, a long-term investment such as language learning tends to be low on the list of priorities even if it has the potential to one day make your life easier – or even save your life!
Equal access to services, including police protection, is a fundamental human right and how to ensure equal access for speakers of other languages and speakers with limited proficiency in the dominant language is a fundamental human rights challenge of our time. A survey of the interrelationship between human rights and multilingualism is available from our resources section. In this paper, which will be published later this year in a new Handbook of Sociolinguistics, Kimie and I argue for a language‐ and communication‐focused approach to migrants’ human rights as they cross international borders and settle outside their countries of origin.
While language learning is centrally important, often there just isn’t the time or the ability; and in order to ensure equality of access, multilingual provision of services seems to be the only option. In the real world, there are many limits to that option – the availability of multilingual staff being a central one as we show with a number of case studies. However, even as we acknowledge the practical difficulties, at least we need to recognize that multilingual provision is the goal – rather than allowing the monolingual mindset to keep language as the last bastion of “legitimate” victim blaming.