Surviving online during COVID with limited English skills

Surviving online during COVID with limited English skills

There have been so many twists, turns and adaptations to guidance and information regarding Covid-19, due to the developing understanding of the virus, that even as a native English speaker with fair IT skills, there have been times when I must admit to experiencing confusion and a lack of clarity. For people with little or no English skills to navigate online and properly inform themselves must be a daunting, Herculean task.

Many news sources are offered solely in English, shutting out swathes of people from accessing and fully comprehending crucial advice. It isn’t just about keeping up to date with the news however, as people also need to navigate and liaise with the welfare system and understand what support  they are entitled to, grasp how transactions in supermarkets and shops have been adapted or how to order food and essential online items, be able to take on board the complexities of the reasons that they and their families are allowed to leave home, order prescriptions, know what services are still available at the GP and for some, make sense of changing guidance from employers. It’s so much to ask of someone who lacks confidence in their English skills.

In recent weeks, I have received messages from concerned previous students who are awaiting the start of remote learning and have contacted me to request support to avoid stagnation of their language skills. As they are primarily higher level learners, I have worked on providing creative writing topics and then giving feedback regarding word ordering, grammar, and spelling. These learners, though, are not the ones who most need support during the lockdown but individuals who are vulnerable, experience other issues which can interfere with their learning and lack the wherewithal and ability to request help.

Luckily, some help is at hand and Local Authorities and charities have swung into action providing innovative solutions to support those most in need, such as translating documents to enable clients and members of the public to understand advice and guidelines. Some of these documents have been made into videos and translated verbally so that people who are unable to read and write in their native languages can be supported to comprehend guidance. Many charities have moved their advice sessions online to social media platforms or Zoom so that service users are able to access crucial support around housing, universal credit, financial issues and employment during the lockdown. Many community centres are providing food parcels with socially distanced drop offs and packed lunches for children not in schools who would otherwise struggle to have enough to eat. Members of staff from local community centres, libraries and ESOL classes who are familiar with individuals who are struggling are able to identify the plight of such people to community groups and local authorities to act upon. Other individuals and community groups are making videos for Twitter and Tiktok with few written or spoken words and a primary focus on conveying information visually, which is a clever way of ensuring all viewers understand the content without singling individuals out.  Some (not all) GP practices have created translated COVID-19 resources to enable speakers of the most commonly spoken languages across Bradford to understand advice about staying safe.

All of these valiant efforts give us much cause to hope in such trying and uncertain times.  Given the economic outlook as a result of this global health crisis, charities, community and voluntary organisations and local authorities will need to continue to be there, developing inventive solutions and working in strong partnerships going into the recovery phase and beyond to shield all members of our communities and mitigate the potential damage wrought by the fallout of this crisis. We have shown we can do this; we just need to keep going.  My Tolkien obsessed brain has just provided me with one of my favourite quotes whilst writing this. “I wish it need not have happened in my time” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Galdalf “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Lisa McKeon, English Language Assessor