WHAT IS LANGUAGE ACCESS?
Language access are those services necessary to ensure all members of society have access to vital information and activities offered to the general public. When and how these services are rendered is a complex issue requiring cross-sector collaboration. The U.S. Census Bureau classifies individuals who speak a language other than English, as their primary language in the home, or speak English less than very well as Limited English Proficient (LEP).
WHO NEEDS LANGUAGE ACCESS?
LEPs are a protected class under state and federal laws. State and federal law stipulate that failure to provide language access represents discrimination on the basis of ‘national origin’. The provision of language support services is, therefore, a civil right.
Administrators at local, state, and federal levels of government are charged with delivering language support services to LEPs in their jurisdiction. Because LEPs have the same rights as English-only speakers to access public services and vital information, the provision of language access services is not optional.
The legal mandate varies from county to county, state to state, and sector to sector. The lack of coordination in the delivery of language access services results in duplication of efforts, increased costs, and loose or unclear guidelines that are not enforceable. Too many laws that do not communicate with each other to regulate language access create unpredictability in the quality and level of service. The lack of coordination of services negatively impacts recipients of services.
WHY DOES LANGUAGE ACCESS MATTER?
In 2021, about 68 million Americans speak a language other than English at home and an estimated 43 million speak English 'less than very well'
The United States of America is home to 68 million individuals who speak a language other than English in the home, this is equivalent to 22 percent of the overall U.S. population. An estimated 43 million Americans, ages 5 and up, speak English 'less than very well'. All figures are based on the most recent 2019 Census estimates.
SIX CHALLENGES IN LANGUAGE ACCESS
Overarching challenges of language access that
demand consideration in all industries
Funding remains a core issue impacting
language accessibility services
Funding as a core issue impacting the delivery of language accessibility services. Agencies are asked to do more with the same amount of money. For instance, local government and state agencies have to hire additional bilingual staff, training staff, contracting interpreters and translators, pay ethnic media, and invest in new software and technology. It takes dedicated funding to develop and oversee a sustainable, effective, and expansive language access operation.
Laws vary in scope and impact,
leaving key areas unprotected.
There is an imperative to not only implement and enforce current statutes, but also to also enact new legislation. Programs charged with providing language access are, in some instances, understaffed, underfunded, and experience high turnover. Language accessibility is routinely lost in a sea of competing priorities.
For example, in California there have been several failed attempts to amend the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act. California legislators have introduced language access bills on a rolling basis over the last few decades with little to no success. One possible reason may be each time a new bill has been introduced, it is not significantly different from previous iterations.
Another layer is considering how state law interacts with federal mandates. The lack of universally accepted laws results in a patchwork of legal obligations which vary from state-to-state, from language-to-language, from condition-to-condition, and from institution-to-institution. Laws vary in scope and impact, leaving key areas unprotected.
The differing levels of requirements may also depend on whether an agency is either state or federally funded, or both. In some cases, agencies may receive various streams of funding. Consequently, there are disparities across institutions and variability in services. It Meanwhile, there are less ambiguous language access laws when it comes to elections and government programs (i.e., Medi-Cal, Medicaid, welfare, etc.).
Race and Ethnicity
There is a stigma attached to being a non-English speaker
Linguistically isolated populations experience disparate adverse health and economic outcomes due to their inability to access and utilize public services that are available to the general public freely and equitably. Without language accessibility, a large segment of the population is unable to enjoy the same civil rights protections afforded to all other citizens. Language barriers exacerbate LEPs' access to life-saving information. In 2021, research published by a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) underscored the various social and demographic factors linked to higher incidence (21.7% higher) and mortality (16.9% higher) rates of COVID-19. These factors include limited English proficiency, race, and disability.
Speaking English less than very well is a status that intersects with multiple barriers such as cultural, economic, and other social determinants of health. There is also a stigma attached to being a monolingual non-English speaker. Oftentimes, having an accent or not speaking the language can lead to racial profiling or discrimination.
In many instances, LEPs do not know about their right to an interpreter. LEPs may also experience other barriers such as low literacy rates that exacerbate the language barrier. In 2019, the San Joaquin Census Research Project found that 65% of Latinos in the San Joaquin Valley have elementary or middle school education in their native language.
Policies or practices that result in disparate outcomes may seem facially neutral. For example, treating English-only speakers and LEPs the same. Such approach results in disparate impact or discrimination for the LEP-protected class on the basis of ‘national origin’. Disparate harm is a term used for discrimination that is unintentional. Language barriers result in exclusion from public programs, delays or denials in services, and inaccurate or incomplete information. This gap in access has real-life consequences for everyone involved, including non-LEPs. Having large segments of the population disconnected may have a negative impact on public health and safety.
There is no universally accepted certification
Another major roadblock to cohesive and coordinated language access is the lack of a universally accepted standard to measure interpreter qualifications and abilities. There is no agreement as to how much training is appropriate and there are no universally accepted benchmarks by which to judge the proficiency of interpreters. Certification is a mechanism to assure the quality of interpreting. A standard certification can guarantee that meaningful communication takes place as intended by the law. Bilingual staff is routinely pulled to perform translation or interpretation work without additional pay, particularly those frequently engaging in public contact such as front office staff.
Conveying meaning from one language to another requires an unusually advanced command of the language.
Although there is no universally accepted certification at the state or federal level. Translators, those who perform written work, can become certified via the American Translators Association (ATA). Interpreter certifications are available for state and federal courts. Medical interpreters can seek certification via the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) or the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). However, agencies should avoid certification exams that are too stringent and have too high of an expectation because it may further shrink the pool of qualified professionals.
There is not systematic method to measure success
There is no systematic means to track ‘public contact’ encounters and outcomes. There is no standard tracking system to quantify a return on investment (ROI) when it comes to dollars spent on language access. Public contact is the action used to trigger language access services, but most people do not know services are available or their right to request language access. Many challenges with this process stem from the statutes that do not provide clear guidance. It is not sustainable to spend taxpayer dollars on language access without the ability to evaluate and measure for success and efficiency. One way to address this would be to include language access as a separate budget allocation. Both private and public sectors must create a language access policy that outlines framework, strategies, responsibilities, resources, and expectations.
Accountability & Reporting
An area that needs investment and further research
In general, there is no enforcement or oversight body for failure or subpar language access services. There is no mechanism of verifying whether agencies are leaving information out. This creates loopholes for state and local government entities to continue to do the bare minimum. Setting accountability measures in place will likely influence/result in entities prioritizing language access.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”