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Multi-lingual phone service to reduce social isolation among migrants

Two Nokia phones lie on a desk in front of a green form
No touch screen needed: basic technology used to make the phone calls.

ABC Gold Coast: Lucy Murray

A Gold Coast multi-cultural group is teaming up with Red Cross to start a phone service aimed at reducing social isolation amongst migrants.

It is an extension of the Australian Red Cross' TeleCHAT, which checks on the welfare of elderly Australians.

The Multicultural Communities Council's Troy Nicholls said the new program, I Speak Your Language, is for anyone who has moved to Australia and is struggling to settle in to the community.

"Hopefully we can link people into activities into their area if they haven't thought about connecting in that way," Mr Nicholls said.

"I've had calls from international students [who] are interested in the project as well [who] may be feeling a bit lonely and away from home."

Success of TeleCHAT

The current TeleCHAT program has been very successful in re-engaging older people with their communities.

Gold Coast coordinator Miriam Calderone said they were dealing with people experiencing social isolation and loneliness.

"We've had clients [who] were very introverted and would not go out and speak to neighbours and strangers," she said.

"The difference with this new program, I Speak Your Language, is that clients will have the opportunity to have that chat in their own language."

Australian birds feature in first call

The first phone call by I Speak Your Language was made in Spanish to a woman from Colombia by volunteer Cristina Cardona who is from El Salvador.

It went on for almost 30 minutes and there was a lot of laughter and talk about Australian birds.

A young women holds mobile phone to her ear to chat to a Spanish speaking client.
Spanish speaking volunteer Cristina Cardona moved to the Gold Coast from El Salvador

ABC Gold Coast: Lucy Murray

Ms Cardona explained afterwards that her telephone client has a pet bird that was making a lot of noise.

The client, who was on the Red Cross list, was elderly and according to Ms Cardona, usually receives a welfare call once a day.

"We normally deliver a wellbeing check call in the morning to this particular client," she said.

"Her English is very limited so we would speak to her for 30-40 seconds as a maximum but as you can witness yourself, she is engaging very well in her own language and she is thoroughly enjoying the call.

"It makes me feel very good, it is very good to see the engagement between volunteer and client. It's beautiful."

An older volunteer holds mobile phone to ear and smiles at camera. Officials working in the background.
Hungarian volunteer Robyn Piroska can speak more than five European languages

ABC Gold Coast: Lucy Murray

Another volunteer, Robyn Piroska, is from Hungary and speaks a mind-boggling collection of languages.

"I have five languages, through the war," Ms Piroska said.

"Born Hungarian, grew up in Austria, Germany, Argentina speaking Spanish, I speak fluent Italian, English, and then I add a little bit of other languages like a little bit of Slavic, Greek, and a little bit of Portuguese."

Both Ms Piroska and the man she called enjoyed the conversation in Hungarian because they do not get a chance to practise this language often.

Will it work?

Ms Piroska has been in Australia since 1969 but said she really struggled to make friends.

"It's very difficult, very, very difficult. I'm 46 years in Australia and I still couldn't make one single Australian friend, and I'm sorry to say that," she said.

"We tried to integrate and somehow we are isolated.

And while Ms Piroska said the program was fun, it was not helping her find Australian friends.

"It helps us migrants, but it doesn't integrate us into the Australian society," she said.

A university researcher stands in front of a library and smiles to the camera
Dr Jennifer Boddy said a cultural shift is needed and Australians need to realise the value migrants bring to our communities

Supplied: Jennifer Boddy

Dr Jennifer Boddy, a senior lecturer in social work at Griffith University, agrees the phone service would help but said it was not the answer.

"Look, I think a service that offers people an avenue for connecting with others is a worthy service and something we should invest in as a society," she said.

"The ability to speak with someone who understands your cultural background, and can speak to you proficiently in your own local language, would mean you are more able to address the issues that are concerning you while feeling less lonely and daunted in addressing those concerns.

"It can also help connect people with say, sporting associations, which would help people embed themselves in the broader Australian community a bit more."

Cultural shift needed

To truly reduce social isolation and feelings of loneliness, Dr Boddy said Australians need to try inviting new people to events.

"I think as a society in Australia we are very individualistic and we are not always entirely welcoming of other people into our lives and families," she said.

"Through our children at school, we can get to know parents of other children who may have just arrived in Australia.

"Inviting people to different events and getting to know people outside of formal structures, like school and education and so on, can help."

The multi-lingual program I Speak Your Language is available Queensland-wide and will run for the next 12 months in a trial funded by the Queensland State Government.