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Pennsylvania courts adds its first group of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers to its interpreter roster

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts is piloting a program to get native PA Dutch speakers certified as court interpreters.

 Courtesy of AOPC

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts is piloting a program to get native PA Dutch speakers certified as court interpreters.

For the first time, Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking communities in the state will have access to interpreters in court.

 The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts added eight state-certified Pennsylvania Dutch speakers to its interpreter roster. 

The effort to recruit native speakers from Amish and Mennonite communities came out of a  partnership between the court system’s Interpreters Certification Program and Safe Communities, a Lancaster-based nonprofit that works to prevent sexual abuse and help survivors. It was spurred, in part, by a need for culturally responsive language support for women and children who testify in cases that involve abuse.

Fifteen native Pennsylvania Dutch speakers from Mennonite and Amish communities in Lancaster County took workshops aimed at preparing them to become court interpreters last fall. Ten passed the two required English proficiency exams. There are eight on the courts’ interpreter roster because two are waiting for background checks to clear.

The group is made up of six women and two men. 

Natalia Petrova, administrator for AOPC’s Interpreters Certification Program, said the goal initially was to focus on recruiting women, since most people who would testify in sexual abuse cases were women, and many refused to work with male interpreters. But some men also showed interest in becoming court interpreters.

Petrova noted that the demand for Pennsylvania Dutch interpreting is not as high as it is for Spanish or sign language, but, in this relatively small community, there is an acute need.

“Even if we get one request, and there is nobody to serve this person, this is bad enough for  the justice system,” Petrova said. “I believe those 10 people can provide the services needed for us.”

Before the effort to recruit native speakers, if there was a request, the program employed German interpreters who found it difficult to understand the dialect.

Pennsylvania Dutch is a distant relative of southern German dialects spoken by immigrants in the 1700s. When those dialects were cut off from Europe, they evolved into what is known today as Pennsylvania Dutch.

In 2023, there were 89,765 Amish people living in Pennsylvania, mostly in Lancaster County, according to the Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

Nearly all Amish speak Pennsylvania Dutch as their first language, but the majority of Mennonites in North America are English monolinguals, according to Mark Louden, a professor of German linguistics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Pennsylvania Dutch interpreter. Like the Amish, most Old Order Mennonites, especially those who belong to horse-and-buggy groups, still speak Pennsylvania Dutch as their mother tongue.

Amish and Old Order Mennonites are bilingual in English and Pennsylvania Dutch, but there are situations when someone might feel more comfortable expressing themselves in their first language, Louden said. Typically, preschool-aged children will need interpreters, since most start learning English only when they enter school.

“In some cases, it is a challenge for Pennsylvania Dutch speakers to discuss more personal topics, like their faith or health and well-being, in English. On the other hand, when talking about things that are less personal and more associated with experiences outside of their community, like politics, they might feel more comfortable using English,” Louden said.

Culturally competent interpreters are also important because there could be situations in which a word normally used in English might be inappropriate to use in Pennsylvania Dutch.

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