KIND’s Language Access Working Group Helps Indigenous Language Speakers

July 12, 2023

A main focus of the Language Access Working Group (LAWG) is better serving Indigenous language clients, ensuring that they have access to legal, psychosocial, and other vital services, and can receive information in their preferred language. The most common Indigenous languages KIND encounters are Indigenous Mayan languages from Guatemala such as Mam and K’iche’.  

There are myriad challenges of working with children who speak Indigenous languages: from first identifying a child’s language and distinguishing regional and geographical variations, to the shame kids sometimes feel due to the discrimination they have experienced speaking their native Indigenous language. Building a rapport and personal relationship with children is key to helping them feel comfortable speaking their language. 

Julie Burnett, a member of LAWG who formerly worked at an Influx Care Facility in El Paso and now works with KIND’s family separation team, explained the steps she and her colleagues take to ensure language access rights for children. “Before speaking with a child, we always ask open-ended questions like, ‘What’s your best language?’ to encourage the child to openly identify their preferred language without stigma.  While shelters conduct a language assessment to determine the language a child is most comfortable speaking, we conduct our own language assessments to confirm the child’s preference.  We offer and provide free interpreters for the child in their language for the Know Your Rights presentations and legal screenings.  

“When we bring a group of K’iche’ language speakers into a classroom for a presentation, they don’t know why they are there and when they realize that they are among other K’iche’ speakers and that other kids speak their language, they began to say, ‘You speak K’iche’ too!’ Joy spreads among the kids as they get excited and start talking,” Julie said.  Being able to identify the client’s preferred language and the connection that it builds is an essential element of providing client-centered legal services. 

For Indigenous language speakers and children with low or no literacy who are primarily visual, Julie and her colleagues created image-based educational materials to provide essential legal information. The materials, which also include a list of organizations in the United States that provide social services, interpreters, and other assistance to Mayan-speaking children, are distributed to kids as a resource while they are in shelter. 

“LAWG strives to ensure that the services we provide to Indigenous language speakers are equitable to the services we provide to non-Indigenous language speakers,” Julie said. She continued: “Children who speak Indigenous languages deserve equal access to information, services, and help. Prioritizing Indigenous language speakers is vital, even though they are fewer in numbers, because they are already at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to access services.”  

Julie shared a story about a 16-year-old girl who spoke K’iche’. There had been a problem with her case because her initial interview at the shelter was conducted in Spanish and she misunderstood and answered a question wrong. KIND’s help with an interpreter allowed the child to feel understood for the first time while at the shelter. “I’m so grateful you listened to me in my native language. I finally feel that I was able to express myself and say what I wanted to say,” Julie recalled the girl saying. 

Moments like this and making sure children can express themselves and communicate in their preferred language is at the heart of LAWG’s work.


Read more about KIND’s Language Access Working Group here.

I’m so grateful you listened to me in my native language. I finally feel that I was able to express myself and say what I wanted to say.

16-year-old girl who spoke K'iche'