Overcome the Language Barrier

Gina Nicholson, RS

No matter where I travel in the United States, from large metropolitan cities to small rural towns, I experience the sounds, sights, smells, and tastes of different ethnic cultures. I enjoy the fact that our country is so richly populated with people from many different cultures. I may not be fluent in languages other than English, but I believe that food is a universal language. It is the one thing that binds all of us together. The proper practice of safe food preparation, however, is not universal … yet. But I believe we are getting closer to accomplishing this goal through the work of global food safety initiatives.

Our ethnically diverse population is apparent in the many food industry employees whose second language is English. It is important to bridge the culture and language gap as we work to communicate proper food safety practices. This opportunity exists for both regulatory and industry professionals.

I have had the good fortune to work on both sides of the food safety profession. I have also had the experience of developing many food safety education programs designed to teach the food safety professional about cultural and language differences, as well as creating food safety education programs for ethnic food employees who may not speak English at all.

The responsibility of learning acceptable behavior regarding food safety is not the food employee’s alone. We must share in that responsibility too.

Bridging the Gap

Some people believe that translating training materials into the proper language or providing an interpreter ensures successful food safety training. Not true. Understanding the culture is much more important. Teaching management about different cultures, including their practices and languages, as well as how to successfully use “cross-cultural communication,” can assist in bridging the gap between cultures.

Work with specific food safety cultural competency consultants when developing a dynamic training program. These highly trained educators know how to communicate in a manner that is culturally and linguistically appropriate. This understanding will help to address language needs as well as provide an understanding of the specific nuances of cultural differences that exist in the workplace. Understanding how people behave, their motivations, and their belief systems is important when developing effective food safety programs.

One of the best ways to learn about different cultures is to attend meetings held by different professional cultural organizations. I have attended many of the Asian American Commerce Group Ohio Chapter meetings over the years and have learned so much about the different Asian cultures. Over the years, a great respect has been established, resulting in improved food safety practices within this community—and a greater understanding of why these food safety behaviors are so important. The best result has been the development of many cherished friendships.

Work with specific food safety cultural competency consultants when developing a dynamic training program. These highly trained educators know how to communicate in a manner that is culturally and linguistically appropriate.

Education for Multiethnic Populations

Food safety education for employees is the best way to reduce the potential for problems related to foodborne illness. The retail food industry has a large employee population with high rates of turnover. Language and literacy barriers, along with non-uniform systems for training and certifying workers, can pose additional challenges. Trying to develop and teach food safety to multiethnic food employees in every language represented can be very costly.

Use simple language principles when developing food safety education materials. First, write at a sixth grade reading level. Remember to use everyday language, as well as large fonts and lots of white space. To make a visual impact, make your presentation colorful, communicate messages without words, feature a clean and simple design, and include pictures of ethnically diverse individuals.

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