Helping Overcome the Language Barrier

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Somewhere in America, just a few miles down the road, just around the corner, there is a church, an ethnically diverse church with Spanish and English-speaking parishioners. Every week people gather at this church to listen to a pastor, a gifted speaker, minister the word of God. The pastor’s words reach out to the people; they captivate them; they assure them. The parishioners leave with a sense of fulfillment and deep understanding…

Well, that’s the hope anyway.

The truth is, not everyone hears “the message” the same. This is particularly true in such ethnically diverse churches where Spanish speaking parishioners have become increasingly the norm. The Hispanic population is growing at a rate of five times that of non-Hispanics. They currently make up an estimated 10% of the U.S. population. For Hispanics immigrating to the U.S., the church serves as an invaluable resource; it is a place for them to establish roots, a place for them to establish community. It is clear that for the church to properly minister to these people, the church needs to speak to them in a language they clearly understand: their native language. The evidence suggests that a great deal more accommodations are needed to effectively reach out to these ethnic, non-English speaking communities in the church.

Bishop Ramirez, in an interview with America magazine, has stated that Hispanics will travel miles out of their community to find a parish that they are comfortable with. “They (Hispanics) won’t go to a mass at the local parish…nobody encourages them or everything is in English.” And Hispanics are not the only ethnic group facing this “language” barrier. The Korean population is facing a similar challenge. According to Ma Jin Hak of Migration World Magazine, it has become increasingly difficult to hold separate services for Korean-speaking and English-speaking parishioners in the same facility. Ethnic groups often have to settle for a scheduled time only when the English programs are done for the day. “Ministering in two languages is one of the challenges that faces every pastor in an ethnic personal parish,” according to Hak. “Fortunately, more bishops and priests across the country are starting to realize the need to help further these ethnic Christian communities.”

So here is the challenge: How do you effectively minister to English, Spanish, Korean and other ethnic groups as one community in the church?

The answer may lie with what the church is willing, or unwilling, to spend to meet those needs. The technology of modern-day interpretation equipment is promising, and it has advanced to meet the needs of multi-language translation in the church; making it possible to broadcast two, three and even four languages simultaneously. Hotels and conference centers have been using this technology for years: catering to large international groups and multinational corporations. This same technology is being brought into the church, and the results are the same: it brings everyone together from all ethnic backgrounds. The parishioners listen together as a group, as one community, and the message is understood by all with equal understanding.

Modern language interpretation equipment typically uses FM technology to transmit messages to a listener. Yes, this is the same “FM” that you listen to on your radio. Radio frequency (RF) technology offers several advantages for language translation: listeners do not have to be “plugged in” or confined to a certain area to listen to a message. An FM audio transmission allows for a portable listening situation: people can be hundreds of feet away from the speaker, free to move around and to listen to the message at their comfort.

So, how is FM technology used in multi-language interpretation?

Basically, there are two pieces of equipment that make this happen: a FM transmitter, and a FM receiver. A transmitter is what actually “transmits” the audio message to the audience. The speaker’s microphone (or church audio system) connects directly into the transmitter. For multi-language translation, more than one transmitter is typically used. The speaker talking in English, for example, would set their transmitter to broadcast at 216 MHz frequency; the speaker talking in Spanish, would set their transmitter to broadcast at 217 MHz frequency. This allows both speakers to broadcast simultaneously on separate frequencies. The Spanish speaker can thus interpret and translate the English speaker, and vice-versa. Listeners pick-up the broadcast message by wearing headphones plugged into a receiver. The receiver captures the FM signal and produces the audio message for listening. For multi-language translation, the receiver would have a selection switch to choose between the different language broadcasts. For example, “Switch A” would broadcast 216 MHz for English; “Switch B” would broadcast 217 MHz for Spanish.

New technologies are emerging that hold even more promise for language interpretation. Infrared listening systems, for example, are being used for simultaneous language interpretation in many churches, courtrooms, and conference centers. An infrared listening system transmits audio by invisible light rays. This has some advantages over FM technology. For starters, infrared is not subject to the interference commonly created by FM radio towers, cellular towers, fire stations, etc. Because infrared is a light source; it does not pass through the opaque walls of the room. This ensures some privacy of the message being delivered, where FM signals can drift outside of the walls of the room and has the potential of being intercepted by an outside party.

An infrared listening system has three basic components: a modulator, which processes the speaker’s audio; an emitter, which transmits the audio signal; and a receiver, which receives the audio for the listener to hear. The speaker plugs their microphone (or sound system) directly into the modulator. For each language being spoken, the modulator designates a frequency: 2.3 MHz for English, 2.8 MHz for Spanish, 3.3 MHz for Korean, etc. The modulator processes each audio signal and sends them to the emitter (the action is similar to a stereo system driving a pair of audio speakers). The emitter then transmits the audio signals simultaneously by infrared light waves. Listeners wear specialized multi-channel receivers so they can pick-up the audio and listen to the speaker in their native language.

Up until recently, most of the infrared systems available on the market have operated on 95 KHz or 250 KHz. Though generally effective, the 95 KHz systems have proven problematic when exposed to high efficiency light, which transmits its own infrared light at the approximate same frequency, creating audio interference. The industries response to this has been to develop an infrared system operating on 2.3 MHz – 3.8 MHz. These frequencies operate above the 95 KHz light waves, and are immune to the problematic high efficiency light transmissions. The result is better sounding audio with minimal outside interference.

Other than language interpretation, FM and infrared listening system offer another great benefit: hearing assistance. When a listener uses a portable FM or infrared receiver, they can easily adjust the volume control to accommodate their hearing loss. Because of the portability of these receivers, a listener can sit anywhere in the church and listen to the service, even in the back of the room. The speaker’s message is always delivered right into the listener’s headphones. This reduces unwanted background noise and other distractions for a more profound listening experience.

Infrared and FM technologies have both proved to be an effective solution for language interpretation and hearing assistance. Certainly they do not bridge all the language barriers and needs that multiethnic churches face. The equipment does require some installation, and should be handled by a local sound contractor or language interpretation dealer. Nonetheless, with the help of technology, we know it at least becomes possible for parishioners to listen to a worship service in their own native language. And that is significant. We know, with the help of technology, that it is also no longer necessary to hold separate worship services to accommodate different ethnic groups. The church can minister to all of its ethnic groups as a whole, as one community, and under one facility. After all, that is what the church is about isn’t it? It is about bringing people together: no cultural barriers, no differences – just community.

This article is reprinted with permission from Williams Sound