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Language and Communications guidelines

Everyone deserves to have meaningful access to the information and services they need.

We want all City departments to be able to provide language and communication access. This is a guide to help staff understand how to create content in multiple languages.

Common questions

What are the eleven most common languages in Boston?
  • English
  • Español (Spanish)
  • Kreyòl ayisyen (Haitian Creole)
  • 繁體中文 (Traditional Chinese)
  • 简体中文 (Simplified Chinese)
  • Tiếng Việt (Vietnamese)
  • kriolu (Cabo Verdean Creole)
  • Русский (Russian)
  • العربية (Arabic)
  • Português (Brazilian Portuguese)
  • Français (French)
  • Soomaali (Somali)

View more demographic data.

How do I pay for translations?

If your project needs to be translated, you will be asked to use a portion of your Language and Communication Access Budget (every department has one) to pay for translations in the needed languages.

I am trying to do outreach in a specific neighborhood, how do I know what languages to translate into? 

Check the links below for statistics on each neighborhood in the City of Boston:

I got the translations, now what?

When you receive the translations back from the vendor, please reach out to a small group of City Hall LCA volunteers. We want to make sure each translation is accurate and verified.

Social Media

Social Media

Images, icons, scanned documents, and info-graphics cannot be used by individuals who use screen-readers. Screen-readers are used by individuals who are blind or low vision. Please use alternative text (image descriptions). If you don't include image descriptions, there will be no context. The screen reader will read it as, “Image”, and continue on.

Quality image descriptions provide textual information about non-textual content. They reflect the level of complexity and purpose of the image, and describe the main ideas of the image. Image descriptions for a complex graphic might have too much text. A helpful tip to create image descriptions is to ask yourself why you chose that photo. That idea will likely be highlighted in the alt text.

Note: When you're writing the alt text, keep in mind that it's read after the content of the post.

Instructions for:
General accessibility

Standard practice is to add captions to any videos we post to social media. Typically, we’ll upload the video to YouTube first. YouTube has a tool that will write out what it detects in the video. Then video creators go through to double-check and make changes. Once YouTube captions are set, download the SRT file. Upload the SRT file to Facebook and Twitter Media Studio. Uploading the SRT file cuts down the work of adding and checking captions.

Audio descriptions are helpful for individuals who are blind or have low vision. The original audio of the video is replaced to include non-auditory cues of the video. Audio description can be provided upon request. 

Language accessibility

On Facebook and YouTube, video subtitles will automatically play in a user's language, if available. However, you can also add separate subtitle files for different languages.

On Twitter, you can only add one type of caption file. Instagram does not support video subtitles.

Social media translates based on the language the post is written in and the language settings of the person viewing it. Language settings should not be relied upon to communicate information across languages. Any alt text on a photo will also be automatically translated. 

Facebook is the only tool that allows the same post to be manually translated into different languages. The user is then shown the post in their preferred language. 

Push content disseminated by language based on the content being communicated. Important information should be translated for social media content.

Language tips

  • When copy and pasting multilingual content, be careful of formatting issues. The only way to verify accuracy is for a third party to review the copy.
  • Audio description is helpful for individuals who are blind or low vision. The original audio of the video is replaced or reformatted to include descriptive non-auditory cues of the video. Audio description can be provided upon request. 
  • Certain languages aren’t supported by YouTube captioning,  including Haitian Creole and Cabo Verdean Creole.
  • Always have a second party double-check translations, whether that’s a volunteer from the Language and Communications Access pool or a different vendor (depending on the urgency).
  • Do not post video with translations before double checking. If necessary, update posts with translations after they are confirmed.

Sign language is a real language with its own grammar and syntax. It is not the same thing as signing English. Sign Language is used by individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, nonverbal, and deaf-blind.

Some individuals may need written text to be translated in sign language. Creating that translation can be useful to ensure content is standardized and disseminated accordingly. 

There is no universal sign language. Each country and region has its own sign language. American Sign Language is used as a first language in the:

  • United States
  • Barbados
  • Bolivia
  • Cambodia
  • Central African Republic
  • Chad
  • Hong Kong
  • the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Gabon
  • Jamaica
  • Kenya
  • Madagascar
  • the Philippines
  • Singapore, and
  • Zimbabwe.
  • Translations and formatting must be done with an external vendor. The creative team cannot support Arabic.
  • Each country speaks a different kind of Arabic, some completely unintelligible to others. For audio content, it is important to clarify in advance your needs (standard Arabic or country-specific).
  • Arabic is written right to left. Pamphlets and brochures shall be designed “opposite” from English standard left to right orientation.

Each country speaks Spanish a bit differently. Variations are not as drastic as with Arabic. For audio content, it is important to clarify your needs in advance. For example, Spanish (Latin America) general or Mexican Spanish.

  • Primarily spoken, not written. Please dub where applicable.
  • Not supported by YouTube captioning.
  • In Cabo Verde, the official language is Portuguese (European). Individuals in Boston who need language assistance, require Cabo Verdean Creole, not Portuguese service.
  • Spoken and written language.
  • Not supported by YouTube captioning.
  • Prioritize dubbing for videos.
  • Individuals in Boston who rely on Haitian Creole language support statistically have lower rates of literacy.

When translating Vietnamese, cultural context is important. There are linguistic differences in how each language is spoken within the original country and within communities in the U.S. Vendors may contract to individuals across the world, not living in the U.S or Boston. That means their context and reference points may be very different.

This is particularly important for Vietnamese — given socio-historical dynamics from the Vietnam Wars. It is specifically important to ensure that language support for individuals reflect their individual contexts. 

  • Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese are not the same.
  • Cabo Verde and Portugal use European Portuguese.
  • Brazil uses Brazilian Portuguese.
  • Clarify explicitly to vendors which language you mean. If you don’t clarify, they will typically assume Brazilian.

Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Toisanese, etc., are all different spoken languages, not variations or dialects of one. Speakers of each would not understand the other. Mandarin and Cantonese are most commonly used in Boston. But, you may receive requests in other Chinese languages. If you don’t know which one to use, ask the constituent directly.

When written, Chinese is either in one of the two formats: Traditional Chinese (繁體中文) or Simplified Chinese (简体中文). Who uses which are dependent on a number of demographic factors:

  • Older adults, Chinatown residents (general): Traditional Chinese
  • Business community, student population, younger/more recent immigrants, Allston-Brighton residents (general): Simplified Chinese

If you don’t know which one to use, ask the constituent directly. While we can provide guidance on which communities typically use one over the other, we advise to always ask the constituent which form is preferred.

Traditional Chinese is more culturally specific and relevant to that constituent. There are more individuals described above who use Traditional Chinese with a language need than those who use Simplified Chinese

Video and design timeline

Are you interested in starting a project with the Creative Team that needs to be translated? Please take a look at our timeline to get an idea of what to expect. When work is translated, it will add anywhere from 24 hours to a full week to the project length. You can see the full production timeline on our video guidelines.

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