Jorge Ungo of CCHI smiles during his interview.

An Interview with CCHI Language Access Advocate Jorge Ungo, the One Who “Brings the People Together”

This year, Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) celebrates a special anniversary — their quinceañera. For 15 years, they’ve been certifying medical interpreters.

To mark this milestone, we spoke with Jorge Ungo, CCHI’s language access advocate (and all-around swell individual). Our conversation covered CCHI’s evolution, including the introduction of the ETOE™ exam, their second annual summit, and their efforts to unite the language access community.

Just as a quinceañera signifies a transition to maturity, CCHI’s 15th anniversary highlights their growth and readiness to embrace new challenges, broadening their impact and fostering a stronger community of certified interpreters, trainers, and advocates.

Watch our interview with Jorge or read the transcript below, and don’t forget to check out CCHI’s ETOE™ credential.

[FULL INTERVIEW] Jorge Ungo of CCHI Has All the Deets

Missy: All right, everyone, thank you for joining us. My name is Missy, and I work at Certified Languages International. Today we are talking with Jorge Ungo. He is the language access advocate at CCHI, and Certified Languages and CCHI have been working together for many years on advancing language access. So, we’re really excited to talk with Jorge today.

Jorge, do you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?

Jorge: Sure, sure. Thank you so much. So, I’ve been working in language services for about two decades now. Most people know me from my previous stint in language access as an account rep for some of the top language companies in the United States, but I took a little bit of a break in the last couple of years and am now working for CCHI.

As you mentioned, as a language access advocate — which is a role that, first of all, I never dreamed of, but second of all, a role that I really, really enjoy because I have the opportunity to impact language access in a much more meaningful way — working with CCHI, part of my role is kind of a liaison between CCHI and other organizations. Partnerships that we have with other organizations, advocacy initiatives, etc. So, it really is an opportunity for me to give back to the language services world and to all of the interpreters out there, both ones that are certified by CCHI and ones that are not yet certified by CCHI. We put together webinars and all kinds of initiatives just to continue to give back to the community.

Missy: The webinars you all put together are really great, and I encourage everyone to watch them. I’ve learned a lot. So great job on this.

Jorge: Thank you.

Missy: Can you tell us a little bit more about CCHI and what the organization does, and what it stands for, and all that good stuff?

Jorge: Yeah, absolutely. So CCHI was founded in 2009 — so, quick math — we are celebrating our 15th anniversary this year.

CCHI, at the core of it, is the national certifying body for healthcare interpreters. We have put a lot of effort into developing, administering, and maintaining certification exams for healthcare interpreters since 2009. That’s kind of the bread and butter, if you will, of what we do.

But in addition to that, because of the community that we serve, it’s not just the healthcare interpreters, but it’s also the people who employ healthcare interpreters and the people who healthcare interpreters work with. We’ve really tried to establish additional programs and efforts out there to support those groups.

We talked a little bit about webinars, for example, supporting interpreters and users of interpreter services with education. We also will host huddles for language access leaders. So people who work for healthcare organizations and are in a leadership role, whether it’s a manager, or a director, or a supervisor, we give them a forum where they can get together with their peers to discuss some of the challenges that they may be facing. And we recently, in January, started a huddle for healthcare interpreter trainers.

Missy: Oh, wonderful!

Jorge: Yeah! This gives them a forum now where they can discuss amongst their peers some of the challenges that they may be seeing, as trainers.

So, you know, it’s more than just administering the tests and maintaining the tests. That’s a big, big part of our job. We have dedicated staff that work on that. But my role is kind of all the extra stuff that we’re doing at CCHI and keeping that going.

Missy: I feel like you’re kind of the expert at bringing people together in that way.

Jorge: I love that.

Missy: I did not know about the huddles, myself. Those sound so useful for those groups of people because I think sometimes it seems like, to me, sometimes you can feel like an island of one or two as a language access coordinator at a big hospital. It’s kind of an uphill battle.

Jorge: Yeah.

Missy: So to bring people together who know that struggle and to just bounce ideas off each other and learn and grow sounds so cool.

Jorge: Yeah, I mean, one thing that I’ve learned over the years working with people in those leadership roles is that you kind of get stuck in your little world because there’s so much going on, right? And just within one single health system, you look at their calendars and they’re just like back-to-back on meetings, you name it. You name whatever the initiative that’s going on within the hospital and language services needs to be at the table.

And so there are a lot of opportunities for that internal organizational discussion, but where is the opportunity for them to talk to their peers outside of those organizations?

I’m based in Houston, Texas. Houston is the site of the Texas Medical Center, which is the largest medical center in the world. We have over 45 institutions in, I think, a two- or three-mile radius within this business district here in Houston.

What has been fascinating to me over the years is that language services leaders don’t always have that opportunity to communicate with each other, even in a super condensed area like that. So the huddle is that opportunity we give them. It’s an hour and a half. We’ll have a guest speaker for about 20 minutes that’ll talk on a topic specific to them, and then we’ll do breakout rooms. We’ll have large group discussion.

It’s a great way for them to meet each other. You’ll have somebody from Kansas and somebody from California that have never met each other before, and then they come to this virtual huddle, and you see them in the chat exchanging contact information with each other.

And yeah, it’s just such a cool thing. And we intentionally made it. We wanted it to be a safe space for language services leaders.

While it’s not like a membership organization, we have made it somewhat of a closed group, just in the sense that we want to make sure that they feel comfortable speaking to their peers openly about their challenges. So anyone who wants to join can go to our website. There’s a Google Form they can fill out. And then once we evaluate their profile and we know that they fit that demographic for the group, we add them to the list, and they get the quarterly invite. We just wanted to foster an environment that would be comfortable for them to speak openly.

Missy: I’ve always wanted one of those for LSPs, just the people in the trenches, just to talk about the different language access policies that are out there, just to understand them all. And so it’s like, “Hey, what do you know about it?” Because I think if we all understand the policies, it just helps everyone, you know? Anyway, yeah, that is such a great idea.

Jorge: I love that. You never know what huddle we might come up with next, so thank you for that.

Missy: Jorge, do it! And I’ll be there just like taking notes because some of my favorite webinars or things to join are when Mara [Youdelman] does breakdowns [of policies]. She’s done a few of [Section] 1557, and it’s so helpful and it’s like, can we all just discuss the policies? Like what they mean, and ask each other questions because some of that stuff is complicated.

Jorge: Absolutely. Mara is incredible at that. She’s one of our commissioners.

Missy: She is top-notch.

Jorge: Yeah, she is amazing. Absolutely.

Missy: Unbelievable. Okay. Thank you. So what are some of your favorite initiatives that you’re working on this year? You kind of went into some of the huddles and stuff, but is there anything else that you’re working on that you want to share?

Jorge: Yeah. Well, the 15th anniversary is really, really, super exciting. I mean, I remember being at the Upper Midwest Interpreter and Translators Association conference, 15–16 years ago, when certification discussions were taking place.

And all of these experts were behind closed doors discussing the potential of certification. And to see how far we’ve come now and where we’re at 15 years later is really, really exciting. So we’ve got our second National Certification Summit coming up in a couple of weeks. That’s just been a joy to put together and to work on with my colleagues at CCHI.

We’ve got 30-something presenters coming. We’ve got nine concurrent workshop sessions happening. Some really cool, outside-the-box plenary sessions. We’re going to have some thought leadership roundtables that are going to be really, really great to attend. So it’s been great. Really fun working with Natalia and the rest of the staff at CCHI putting that event together.

And we won’t stop there! That’s happening in April. But, you know, we like to celebrate our anniversary year-round. So we’ll have some other stuff coming up after the summit to continue to commemorate 15 years of national healthcare interpreter certification.

Missy: It’s wild it’s only been 15 years. It seems like it’s been there forever. And that’s a good thing.

Jorge: Totally. Yeah!

Missy: All right, so CCHI recently launched a new English-to-English, or ETOE™, exam for interpreters. Can you give us a very general overview of this exam?

Jorge: Let me start by kind of giving you a very brief overview of what our testing in general looks like.

Missy: Perfect.

Jorge: If you are a Spanish, Arabic, or Mandarin interpreter, first you take our CoreCHI™ written exam, and that tests you on knowledge of code of ethics, some vocabulary, things like that. But it’s completely in English, it’s multiple choice, and it’s administered on a computer. If you pass that exam and you interpret Spanish, Mandarin, or Arabic, then you go on to take the oral performance exam, which is a bilingual exam that tests you on your ability to interpret accurately.

If you interpret a language other than Spanish, Mandarin, or Arabic, then, previously, the only opportunity that you had to become certified was just to take that first exam, the CoreCHI™. And that was the end. That was it. You stop there. There was no test to validate your performance as an interpreter in all of the hundreds of other languages that are out there.

At CCHI, we didn’t feel that that was a fair and equitable way to administer a national certification program. We wanted to make sure that if you were a Punjabi interpreter, or a Dinka interpreter, that you also had the ability to get fully certified the same way that a Spanish interpreter would.

And it wasn’t just for the interpreters. It’s also for the healthcare providers and for the LEP patients. When they’re working with a certified interpreter, I think that they would want to know that that person has been fully validated at the same level that a Spanish or Mandarin interpreter has, right? It shouldn’t make a difference that they interpret a different language.

We set out to study whether or not an exam administered only in English — not a bilingual exam, just in English — could validate someone’s interpreting skills. And that’s why it’s called the English-to-English exam, because you’re essentially “interpreting” from English into English instead of English into Spanish or Spanish into English. You’re essentially interpreting from English into English in order for us to validate some of those cognitive interpreting skills. And so that’s what the English-to-English exam is.

The way that we conducted that study was by developing an exam with subject matter experts, and then during the study, we had Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic interpreters take both the regular, oral performance exam for their language, but in addition to that, they also took the pilot exam for ETOE™. And then we compared their results on both of those exams. And what we found was that statistically speaking, those exams were on par with one another. In other words, if someone took the Spanish-English exam and they took the ETOE™ exam, their performance on both of those exams was on par with each other. And that validated that that exam then was a valid measure of measuring someone’s interpreting skills, even though they’re not speaking in the other language.

Missy: Were people surprised by those results?

Jorge: I don’t think so. I think that the work we did with the task force and the subject matter experts, and the time and thought that went into how we would do this, I think that our expectation that the result would be what they were.

There’s a whole other component to it, which is that we now need to validate language proficiency. And our test doesn’t do that, right? Because the test is just testing those [interpreting] skills. But it’s not testing your proficiency in the other language. And so that was another layer that we had to incorporate into our process to ensure that you, as a Khmer speaker, while you may perform really well on an English-to-English exam, do you have the linguistic acumen to actually interpret in that language? And so we have a different process that we have implemented for them to validate their language skills.

But altogether, that validation of their language skills, plus their performance on the English-to-English exam, presents a really neat package, a really nice package that is on par with testing someone in both languages.

We feel that this is — there’s no other organization out there, not even in other verticals of interpreting, that are doing anything like this — pretty ground-shattering.

Missy: I think so too. It’s pretty exciting.

Jorge: Very exciting. And to see the number of interpreters who are taking the exam and are now fully validated. We had an interpreter of an indigenous language from Latin America who recently posted something on LinkedIn, and basically she said, “For the first time ever, I actually have validation of my language and my interpreting skills.” The confidence that that gives somebody. I think it’s huge. And the pride. Absolutely, absolutely.

Missy: There’s so much validation there too. You understand this more than anyone because of your experience as an account rep, but people just think every interpreter is certified. They’re like, “Can I get a certified interpreter in Khmer?” It’s like, no, that’s not really how it works. So it is a game-changer.

Jorge: Huge, huge.

Missy: And this all didn’t happen overnight. I mean, I remember hearing stuff about it, I think, pre-pandemic, like the study started and stuff. So this has been over years, correct?

Jorge: Oh yeah. The initial task force meetings started prior to 2018, I believe. I think we started working on the pilot exam in 2019. We published the first study, I believe, in 2020. So yeah, it’s been a long road.

The actual exam was launched in 2023, so we are right at a little over the one-year mark of administering the exam and certifying folks. So yeah, it’s been quite a process. It was not an overnight thing.

Missy: It’s just such a big deal. I’m so proud of you all. What’s the benefit for interpreters to take the ETOE™ exam?

Jorge: So, I would say, the benefit is being able to confidently say to someone, “I’ve been validated, for my skills, by an accredited national certification body.”

There are so many interpreters out there who are working freelance for multiple companies. And while the language service providers may have their ways of vetting and things like that, oftentimes the interpreter doesn’t have something, a certificate of their own that they can kind of say, “Well, this is what I did. This is the step that I took to go out there and have my skills validated.”

And just the ability to put letters behind your name and to have that sense of accomplishment, I think is so huge.

A lot of healthcare organizations are now going towards only hiring certified interpreters, so there’s a benefit in that your job opportunities will open up.

I’ve talked to several certified interpreters who have said to me, “I was hired without question by a language service company because they saw my certification. There was no further need for them to validate my skills. That was enough.”

And so just the ability for them to expand their reach and their career opportunities because they’re certified, again, it goes back to, previously, there was only this full certification available for those three languages. And while you could get certified after taking that written exam, previously, now, an interpreter for one of the other languages has that ability to get fully certified, which is just, it’s huge, right? It puts them on par with the Spanish interpreters. So I think that’s a big benefit.

Missy: Are interpreters not in the three core languages excited to take it? Are they excited at the possibility of getting certified — that they can now have that full certification? Have you noticed that?

Jorge: Yeah, for sure. I mean, the testing window happens four times a year, and I’d say that our pioneer testing window was probably one of the busiest ones, like the first group.

And just to see some of the names of people who I know and respect so much, people who already have a following on social media, and who are already rock stars in language services, and that even at their level, they said, “You know what, this is important, and I want to get the CoreCHI-P™ credential.”

I think with any testing there’s also apprehension, right? Folks are scared of the unknown. This is a new concept. There’s not something that they can compare the experience with. And so, one of the things that we’ve done is we have a practice exam on our website that they can take, so that they can kind of get a feel for what the test will be like, to kind of take away a little bit of that test anxiety.

But I think, that aside, it’s just such a wonderful opportunity for interpreters of languages other than Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin to get certified.

Missy: Okay, our last question. In what ways has this expanded the number of languages available for testing?

Jorge: I mean, plain and simple, we went from being able to administer an oral performance exam in three languages to now we can administer an oral performance exam in unlimited languages, including American Sign Language.

We have several CoreCHI-P™ certificants who are American Sign Language interpreters. Even though they have their RID certification, or they may have their BEI certification, there isn’t currently any certification for Sign Language interpreters in healthcare, specifically. The RID certification is a generalist certification. Nothing wrong with that.

Missy: No, not at all.

Jorge: I mean, obviously, that’s what is the standard, in their profession, but to be able to say that in addition to being RID certified, they are also a CoreCHI-P™. It’s huge.

I was just at a conference not too long ago, and we had a booth set up, and people came by to get their signatures on their little booklet. And I’d ask them, “What language do you interpret?” And I got several ASL interpreters, and it was like they almost started to walk away, when I said, “Well, hang on, hang on, let me talk to you about this.”

And when I told them about the test and how the test worked and what the test meant, that they could get a healthcare designation, a credential that’s specific to healthcare, and that it can be administered in English, that they can take it and actually obtain that certification, it was like they made a U-turn and came back. “Let’s talk about this some more. I want to learn more about this.”

So yeah, it’s opened so much, so much opportunity for so many interpreters. We’re just incredibly excited to see the list of languages as each testing window comes and goes. And then we see the languages of interpreters who we have now certified. It’s phenomenal. It’s exciting.

Missy: Do you know the number of languages off the top of your head?

Jorge: I don’t. That’s a good question.

Missy: That was a little curveball for you.

Jorge: Yeah, yeah. That one would have required some study.

Missy: Yeah, I bet.

Jorge: But it definitely … I mean, if I had to guess, I’d probably guess, I don’t know, probably 25 or 30.

Missy: That’s excellent.

Jorge: Yeah, maybe even more than that because I see different languages every time we have a new cohort. Really exciting.

Missy: Yay! Well, that’s all we have for you, Jorge. Thanks so much, again, for talking with us. When is the CCHI summit again? It’s April 5?

Jorge: April 6. I mean April 5th is important too because we love a party. And on April 5, we will have our quinceañera reception the night before because we are celebrating 15 years.

So, yeah, it’s going to be a party. It’s going to be so much fun. I’m just so excited to see everybody. And we are so grateful to have had the support of CLI from the very beginning. I really cannot overstate how much CLI’s support of CCHI has meant to the organization. I would say that half of what we’ve done wouldn’t have even been possible if it wasn’t for the support of CLI, and other organizations, as well.

But I would say that Kristin [Quinlan] has always been there for us, has always found a way to support any initiative that we’ve had. And it’s just incredible. So you all will be there sponsoring the event.

Missy: I’m going to be popping out from behind a curtain.

[Both chuckling]

Thank you so much, Jorge and CCHI!