YDR Insider

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Overcoming language barriers in York County

Late one September night I walked down a dark alley behind several row homes in York City. I was looking for a woman I knew lived on the block — but I didn’t know which home and I had only her first name to go by.  I saw a man in his 20s standing on a back stoop and I told him I was looking for the woman. He watched me for a moment before saying in a thick Spanish accent, “I don’t speak English.”

So there I was — dark alley, deadline to meet and no one could understand me. It didn’t seem like a promising situation.

I’ve met plenty of people in York County who don’t speak perfect English, but there was always some way to communicate — whether through a friend or someone nearby who could translate. I was on my own this time.

But the guy recognized the woman’s name and began speaking to his neighbors in Spanish before the woman I was looking for came running from a third floor apartment. I remember standing there wishing I had been more diligent in listening to the Spanish cassette tapes my Mom tried to get me to use as a kid. Thankfully, the woman and I didn’t face the same language barrier and I got the information I needed for my story.

According to the 2010 Census, the Hispanic population in York County is growing. Here was a new challenge: How do we communicate with a Spanish-speaking community? Our editors had an idea.

They bought Rosetta Stone.

I only began the program a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve already started to pick up on words I hear when walking through the city or standing at a scene. However, I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Two days before Christmas I covered a fire in York Township where firefighters said a family of four was displaced from their trailer home. I always try to talk to the families at these kind of scenes — Are they OK? Do they have a place to stay? How can people help them? But I didn’t get very far at that fire. I was told the family had trouble speaking English and it would be very difficult for them to answer even a few questions.

Not knowing their language made it hard for me to do my job. How could I convey to people the trials of losing your home two days before Christmas if the family can’t express that to me? I left wishing I could have done more to tell their story.

I also wonder how those living in predominantly Hispanic communities are getting information. Could an additional challenge be learning how to convey news to those people?

How we get and give the news is always adapting — although it’s recently been through changes in technology. It will take time, but I hope that putting forth the effort to learn Spanish will help me connect with more people in York County.