Google Translate enlisted to help Victoria businesses serve immigrants

Ibrahim Haj-Ibrahim remembers his first months in Victoria, the frustration of using his limited English to try to open a bank account or buy a cellphone plan.

The Syrian refugee and father of four, who arrived in Victoria February 2016, would sometimes leave interactions with Canadians feeling confused, frustrated and helpless. “For all newcomers it’s challenging,” he said.

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It’s a situation familiar to many refugees and immigrants who are slowly learning English. In the last year, about 415 Arabic-speaking Syrian refugees arrived in Greater Victoria, 95 per cent of whom speak a low level of English.

The Intercultural Association has partnered with Google Translate to help Greater Victoria’s refugees and immigrants overcome these often frustrating language barriers.

The ICA wants to train as many people as possible in the Google Translate app, including businesses, community agencies, public services and schools.

“What we’ve found is that language skills, they’re going to take time to develop. But in the interim, we’re looking for way to bridge that communication gap,” said Kate Longpre, ICA’s community integration co-ordinator.

The free app works like a digital interpreter, allowing two people who speak a different language to communicate through a smartphone. One person says a sentence into the app and it’s translated into one of 103 languages.

You can also take a photo of a word and the app will tell you what the word is in your language.

Anyone who completes the training will receive a We Speak Translate decal, which serves as a visual symbol of inclusiveness.

“This will be a symbol around Victoria that says: ‘We’re committed to diversity and value inclusiveness and we’re going to try and work past communication barriers while language skills are still developing,’ ” Longpre said.

Longpre said she came up with the idea while trying to think of ways technology can help newcomers integrate into their new home.

She said Google was heavily promoting the Translate app during the 2016 Rio Olympics, training taxi drivers and other tourism operators how to use it to communicate with visitors.

Longpre reached out to staff at Google, who agreed to provide training and design and print the decals.

“So when newcomers are out in the community, let’s say they show up at Crystal Pool and they see the decal, they feel comfortable this is a safe space and they can use Google Translate to communicate,” Longpre said.

“It’s not always 100 per cent perfect [translation], but it’s that moment of being able to connect and work with someone you haven’t met before.”

Staff from Google are coming to Victoria to launch the project and provide the training on April 12.

Many immigrants and refugees are already familiar with the app, but ICA will provide training to all clients and staff. Ayhan Duman, owner of Seven Valley Fine Foods on Douglas Street, said his native tongue is Turkish and he has used Google Translate with some Arabic speakers who come into his shop.

Longpre said newcomers are still encouraged to improve their English and continue language classes, but this could allow them an easier transition while they’re learning.

“I don’t think Google Translate will help you tell your life story to someone, but it might help you navigate a situation where you need a bit of support in terms of integrating and accessing a service,” she said.

Greater Victoria welcomes an average of 1,400 immigrants and refugees each year, according to the Victoria Foundation.

The ICA provides settlement services to newcomers, including helping people find housing, apply for jobs and access social services. The ICA also offers English-language classes to about 450 people.

The We Speak Translate project launch takes place on April 12 between 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. at the Delta Ocean Pointe Hotel in the Arbutus A room. To attend, visit:

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