Bilingual students help immigrants overcome language barriers

Even as Suann Kim of Suwanee looks forward to her senior year at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, she still vividly remembers how awkward she felt in elementary school. She was the new kid who didn’t know English.

Her family immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea, settling in Gwinnett County when Suann was in fourth grade. While she gradually caught on to the language, her mother struggled to understand when people spoke to her. Suann hasn’t forgotten the language barriers and the discrimination and how her mother tried to stand up against them.

“She would not hold back out of shame and would ask me what to say to get her point across,” Suann said.

Nela Vintrlikova — Suann’s friend and classmate at Gwinnett STEM — faced a similar upbringing when her family immigrated from the Czech Republic when she was in elementary school. Like Suann, Nela was placed into an English as a Second Language class and immersed into a regular classroom in Gwinnett County Schools. However, both girls said they felt overlooked in academics because they didn’t know the language.

These communication struggles led Suann and Nela to start SUNE Translate, a nonprofit translation service using high school and college students who are fluent in many languages.

SUNE Translate targets underserved communities where non-English speakers are experiencing language barriers. The service also gives bright bilingual students a chance to use their skills in interpreting and writing.

“In our area, there are a lot of students who can speak, write, listen and understand their own language, and also English, but they don’t have the opportunity to use that valuable skill,” explained Suann, who is fluent in Korean.

Nela calls it an “untapped resource.” She also speaks Czech and German and says most multilingual students have never had the option to use their languages outside their homes.

Credit: spe

Credit: spe

SUNE Translate has 45 translators with 12 languages represented. People seek help for various interpretations, such as tax documents, insurance paperwork, driver’s licenses, and birth certificates.

“These are people who don’t have the money to get an actual translation because they’re very expensive,” Nela said.

SUNE Translate also works with businesses and for-profit organizations that pay for their services. For example, earlier this year, the nonprofit helped gather community input for the Gwinnett Place mall redevelopment plan.

SUNE provided Korean, Vietnamese and Mandarin interpreters for a large event that was part of Gwinnett County’s planning process for Reclaim Gwinnett Place Mall. More than 200 people participated, and SUNE Translate was vital to the success of the event in capturing important community feedback, said a spokesperson for HR&A, the company leading the redevelopment effort.

“This young group of bright individuals takes their mission of overcoming language barriers and connecting individuals from different backgrounds seriously,” said Miriam Dominguez, outreach and engagement associate for HR&A on the Equitable Redevelopment of Gwinnett Place Mall project. “Overall, great experience with SUNE Translate, and we will not hesitate to recommend them for any translation or interpretation needs.”

Credit: spe

Credit: spe

Being unable to communicate can be discomforting and dangerous. It also limits opportunities for education and jobs, say the girls. SUNE Translate wants to help break down language barriers, and both girls want to keep running the organization even when they head off to college after high school. Nela recently translated a birth certificate for a family returning to the Czech Republic.

“It does feel great to be able to help other people, but it can also be not very comfortable sometimes,” Nela said. “We try to reach out as far as we can, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Suann recalls helping a Korean father who said his daughter was unfairly treated at school. He wanted to write a letter to administrators but didn’t know how to word it correctly, so he reached out to Suann for help. She immediately returned the translated version of his letter.

“Right away, he sent me a long message showing how grateful he is that we’re offering these services,” Suann said. “That gave me the courage to be able to run this business and work with these students.”


Pro bono translations are offered to nonprofit organizations helping underprivileged or under-resourced communities, student organizations, community service, and other volunteering organizations.

Donation translations are offered for individuals, businesses, and for-profit organizations.

Apply to be a translator. Online applications for high school and college students only.

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