“Lenders and servicers must be required, not merely encouraged, to respond to the needs of LEP consumers with concrete steps to increase access to written and oral assistance. Without action, LEP consumers will continue to face significant barriers in achieving homeownership and saving their homes when they face hardship.”
— Nicole Cabañez, Skadden Fellow at the National Consumer Law Center
A significant barrier for borrowers who don’t speak English in the U.S. (besides the fact they don’t speak English) is the lack of consistent language support from mortgage lenders.
To make up for it, many limited English proficient (LEP) borrowers will seek out other ways to understand the complex house-buying process.
This includes relying on the internet to search for translated information, or asking for help from trusted advisors, loved ones, or friends.
For many cultures, receiving advice from family and friends who have gone through the process before is normal. People, regardless of their language or culture, want to fully understand the documents and processes involved because buying a home is a big financial responsibility.
However, there’s a difference between seeking advice to supplement information as a borrower and borrowers relying on their family — especially children — to be the language support they require to understand the process. That responsibility should not fall on an ad hoc interpreter (i.e., bilingual individuals who do not have specific interpreter training or certifications) or an inexperienced translator.
Can a child explain “escrow”?
On a good day, most native English speakers can’t tell you what “escrow” means. So how do you expect an LEP borrower’s family member, or child, to do so?
Minors have little to no baseline knowledge about the lending process, let alone the experience to try to piece it together. Interpreting or translating complex topics like “escrow” requires the individual to interpret or translate not just the word but the concept or idea.
In addition, they likely lack familiarity with real estate practices, market trends, legal regulations, and negotiation strategies.
Professional interpreters and translators have experience with financial services processes and terminology, and know how to quickly look up unfamiliar topics if they need to.
Withholding information is a two-way street
Borrowers may be embarrassed or not want their child or family member to know personal details about their lives or financial situation, so they’ll withhold information.
Conversely, because ad hoc interpreters don’t have interpreter training to convey a message accurately and completely, they could accidentally (or purposefully) omit a crucial detail that could have serious consequences for the borrower.
Professional interpreters follow strict ethical guidelines that require impartiality. They must stay true to the source message at all times. This ensures that no personal biases creep into the conversation. Nor do they have a stake in the game, so borrowers are more likely to be forthcoming about their finances.
Interpreting and translating can be burdensome
Holding onto the knowledge obtained from interpreting or translating sensitive information can be difficult for minors or family members.
Children, especially, might not have the emotional maturity to handle what they learn about their parents’ bank statements and mortgages. In addition, they might be told to keep the information they learn to themselves, which adds layers of responsibility, potential guilt, and anxiety to an already delicate situation.
Even professional interpreters find the emotional labor involved in interpreting challenging. With time and experience, they develop skills to distance themselves from the content for which they are providing language services — a luxury many family members and children simply do not have.
No knowledge of interpreter protocols
Professional interpreters are fluent in both the target and source languages, but their real strength comes in the form of interpreter protocols.
Interpreter protocols are a set of best practices interpreters use to navigate any situation they’re presented with — from managing call flow and handling disruptions to asking for clarification and maintaining transparency at all times.
It may look easy to interpret, just relaying information back and forth, but it’s deceptively complex, and interpreter protocols often keep the conversation on track.
Interpreters have a toolbox
And one of the most precious items in the interpreter toolbox is their ability to take notes. Note-taking helps professional interpreters remember longer statements and recall numbers and unfamiliar terms with accuracy (especially useful for calls related to mortgage loans).
We’re not just talking about typical note-taking styles a student might use in a lecture, either. Interpreters use symbols, abbreviations, mnemonics, keywords, and different note-taking methods because they need to be able to jog their memories quickly.
This type of note-taking requires time to master. It’s not a skill an ad hoc interpreter can pick up on the fly.
Instead, encourage family and friends as trusted advisors
Like in medical care, minors should never be used to interpret or translate anything related to an LEP borrower’s financial situation. There’s too much at stake for both the minor and the borrower.
If an LEP borrower insists on using a bilingual family member or friend to assist with interpretation or translation, it’s always prudent to also work with a professional interpreter at the same time. They can step in to aid in confusion or when anyone has questions about how to explain concepts and terminology. Make sure the LEP borrower has access to well-vetted in-language resources, like the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)’s Mortgage Translations clearinghouse. And don’t forget to document their choice to use a bilingual individual as well as your offer of professional language services.
Family, friends, and trusted advisors definitely have a place in the lending process. Their experience and encouragement can provide confidence to LEP borrowers and help them through the anxieties of buying a home. However, it’s up to the lender to make sure their LEP borrowers thoroughly understand their process. And working with professional interpreters and translators can help.
If you’re in the market for professional remote interpreting services, contact us! We support over 230 languages and have thousands of professional interpreters waiting to take your call.