If you speak a language other than English, here’s a patch you can wear with pride

Micaiah Balonek, who lives most of the year in India, wears a Hindi interpreter strip.
Micaiah Balonek, who lives most of the year in India, wears a Hindi interpreter strip.

Alejandra Opdyke wears an “Español” strip because she wants Spanish-speaking parents of prospective Scouts to know “that somebody might help them in their language.”

Mike Anderson’s “Deutsch” strip, earned as a Scout five decades ago, caught the attention of an Austrian Scouter at the 2019 World Scout Jamboree. Anderson and the man spoke German throughout the event, and the two still keep in touch on Facebook.

And when Jon Smithey has finished working on the Mandarin strip, he’ll wear it with pride because it “signifies diversity, the widespread reach of Scouting and inclusion.”

“It alerts someone who also speaks, and maybe only speaks, a language that there is someone there who can and will be happy to communicate with them in that language,” Smithey says. “I love the idea of interpreter strips.”

The interpreter strip bears the name of a foreign language in the characters of the language itself. Whether you’re in person (wearing face coverings and standing a safe distance apart) or meeting with fellow volunteers on Zoom, it’s a handy way to show others that you speak their language.

The Scout Shop carries 19 different varieties of interpreter strips. If you don’t find the specific language you’re after, you can order a custom-made strip through your local Scout Shop or by contacting the main customer service line (1-800-323-0736). Just note that for custom orders, the minimum order size is two strips.

Here’s what else you need to know about interpreter strips.

Who can wear an interpreter strip, and how can I earn one?

Any Scout or Scout volunteer — any age, any program — can earn an interpreter strip.

The official requirements, outlined here and below, demonstrate your ability to communicate in a given language:

  1. Carry on a five-minute conversation in the language.
  2. Translate a two-minute speech or address.
  3. Write a letter in the language (does not apply for American Sign Language).
  4. Translate 200 words from the written word.

You’ll need the approval of two people: your unit leader and another person — perhaps someone who teaches that language or is a native speaker.

After that, well done! (Bien hechoGut gemacht, bien joué, etc.) You can purchase the strip from your local Scout Shop or online. You do not need to turn in the completed form to purchase an interpreter strip.

A patch with the word “Greek,” in the Greek alphabet
The Greek interpreter strip.

Where is the strip worn?

Wear it over the right pocket — just above the “BSA” or “Boy Scouts of America” (depending on which version of the uniform you own).

Which languages are the most popular?

It’s impossible to know how many uniforms out there have interpreter strips on them — especially because some adult volunteers added those patches to their uniforms decades ago.

But we can look at sales numbers to see which interpreter strips were purchased most often in recent years.

Of the 19 interpreter strips available at ScoutShop.org, these were the 10 top sellers. The percentage next to each name is that strip’s percentage of overall sales of interpreter strips.

  • Spanish: 41%
  • German: 11%
  • French: 11%
  • Morse Code: 9%
  • American Sign Language: 6%
  • Simplified Mandarin Chinese: 5%
  • Japanese: 4%
  • Portuguese: 3%
  • Italian: 2%
  • Traditional Mandarin Chinese: 2%
    (All others: 6%)

What languages are available?

  • American Sign Language
  • Arabic
  • Cantonese
  • Dutch
  • French
  • German
  • Greek
  • Hebrew
  • Italian
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Mandarin (Simplified)
  • Mandarin (Traditional)
  • Morse Code
  • Native American languages
  • Portuguese
  • Russian
  • Spanish
  • Vietnamese
The patch design spells out “M-O-R-S-E”

Wait, is Morse code a language?

Technically, no. It’s a communications method. But the ability to “speak” this special language is a handy tool and a fascinating link to American and Scouting history.

The Morse code interpreter strip, which depicts the letters M-O-R-S-E in dots and dashes, debuted in 2012.

To earn it, Scouters and Scouts must:

  1. Carry on a five-minute conversation in Morse Code at a speed of at least five words per minute.
  2. Copy correctly a two-minute message sent in Morse Code at a minimum of five words per minute. Copying means writing the message down as it is received.
  3. Send a 25-word written document in Morse Code at a minimum of five words per minute.

What if the Scout Shop doesn’t carry the language I speak?

There are more than 7,000 living languages in the world, according to The Washington Post. If the Scout Shop carried interpreter strips for each one, they would have room to carry little else.

Instead of stocking every available language, the Scout Shop will make custom strips. The minimum order size is two, so as long as you’re willing to pony up for a pair of strips, you’re in luck.

You can order through your local Scout Shop or by contacting Scout Shop customer service. When you request a language, the Scout Shop Specialty Products team will verify the proper spelling of the language using that language’s characters or alphabet.

As of this writing, the Scout Shop has made 91 different custom-made interpreter strips for Scouters and Scouts. That list includes:

  • Armenian
  • Bengali
  • Bosnian
  • Bulgarian
  • Burmese
  • Croatian
  • Czech
  • Danish
  • Dari
  • Finnish
  • German
  • Haitian Creole
  • Hindi
  • Hungarian
  • Icelandic
  • Lithuanian
  • Malaysian
  • Mongolian
  • Norwegian
  • Polish
  • Portuguese
  • Punjabi
  • Romanian
  • Scottish Gaelic
  • Serbian
  • Slovenian
  • Swedish
  • Tagalog
  • Tamil
  • Telugu
  • Turkish
  • Vietnamese North
  • Vietnamese South
Michael Balonek, who lives most of the year in India, says his Hindi interpreter strip is a literal conversation-starter.
Michael Balonek, who lives most of the year in India, says his Hindi interpreter strip is a literal conversation-starter.

Why should you wear an interpreter strip if you’re qualified?

We asked Scouters on Scouting magazine’s Facebook page to share why they wear an interpreter strip.

Jeff Shepherd (Bulgarian)
“I’m proud to wear Български (Bulgarian) on my uniform,” he says. “I was Scoutmaster of Troop 359 in Sofia for a bit over a year. I want to encourage any Scout I come across to work toward learning another language!”

Michael Balonek (Hindi)
“My son Micaiah and I wear the Hindi interpreter strip, as we live most of the time in India and are fluent in spoken and written Hindi,” Michael writes. “When we interact with the Bharat Scouts in India, it is a discussion point, definitely. And last year at the World Scout Jamboree, it definitely helped get conversations going.”

Elisabeth Norwood (Japanese)
“I wear Japanese. The odds of needing it where we live are really low, but I’m always hopeful,” she writes. “I’d like the Scouts to see that learning a foreign language is far more than just fulfilling high school requirements.”

Drew Douma (Greek)
“My son wears Ελληνικά (Greek),” Drew writes. “He bought ice cream from a truck in uniform the other day, and the woman used her native language to serve him. He is one of two in his troop to wear one.”

Anders, a Life Scout in the Northern Star Council in Minnesota, wears a “Norsk” interpreter strip on his uniform.
Anders, a Life Scout in the Northern Star Council in Minnesota, wears a “Norsk” interpreter strip on his uniform.

Chatting with a Scout who speaks Norwegian

We heard from the father of Anders Brovold, a Life Scout from Troop 9323 of the Northern Star Council in Minnesota.

Anders recently completing the requirements for the Norwegian interpreter strip.

Bryan on Scouting: What inspired you to want to pursue the Interpreter strip in Norwegian?

Anders Brovold: “I had already taken over three years of Norwegian, so I was fairly fluent in reading, writing and speaking the language. When I found the requirements for the interpreter strip, I found that it lined up pretty well with what I was doing.”

BOS: What was the most difficult part of completing the requirements?

AB: “Being a homeschooler, I have a lot of choices on how to learn different subjects. We started with a few computer programs online. It worked better for me to have someone talking with me face-to-face or via video conference. I first asked to just sit in for some of the classes at a college, but they wouldn’t allow me because I was too young. So, I found students from that college that were able to teach me Norwegian using the same curriculum.”

BOS: Why do you think it’s important for Scouts to wear Interpreter strips — no matter the language?

AB: “When you have an exchange student from another country, they may feel more comfortable around everyone if there is a translator with them. Also, at the World Jamboree, it is important to have people who understand what troops from other countries are saying.”

BOS: What is something about Scouting that you feel translates into any language?

AB: “All the points of the Scout Oath and Law. You can follow them no matter who you are or where you come from.”

About Bryan Wendell 3282 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.