WHAT IS LANGUAGE ACCESS?
Language access are those services necessary to ensure LEPs have equal access to vital information and activities. When and how these services are rendered is a complex issue requiring a multidisciplinary approach. 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 or LEP.
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, nearly 26 million Americans need language access
California is home to the largest share of LEPs in the country. The State is home to roughly 7 million LEPs, which is equivalent to 19 percent of California’s population. The national figure is even greater at 25.6 million, which is equivalent to 8.4 percent of the overall U.S. population. To help put these numbers into perspective, California’s LEPs represent a share of 28 percent of the overall national LEP population, according to the most recent 2019 Census estimates.
One common misconception is that LEPs are all immigrants. In fact, about 27 percent of Californians are foreign-born. Moreover, California enjoys the highest level of linguistic diversity. In 2015, the Census Bureau reported there are at least 350 languages spoken in the U.S. and there are 185 different languages spoken in Los Angeles County.
SIX CHALLENGES AFFECTING LANGUAGE ACCESS
Overarching challenges of language access that demand consideration in all industries
Funding remains a core issue impacting language accessibility services
Most of the sources reviewed for this paper and the fact-finding interview point to funding as a core issue impacting the delivery of language accessibility services. When agencies are asked to do more with the same amount of money it is understandably challenging. 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 is costly to develop and oversee an operation for which there is little precedent.
Laws vary in scope and impact, leaving key areas unprotected.
There is a pressing need to not only implement and enforce current statutes, but it is also imperative to enact new legislation. Programs charged with 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, there have been several failed attempts to amend the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act since 1973. California legislators have introduced language access bills on a rolling basis over the last few decades with little to no success. However, each time a new bill has been introduced, it is not significantly different from previous iterations. Additional limitations for California legislators are federal mandates and the fact that language access laws vary from state to state.
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 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. California has differing laws for state agencies. There may be more specific language access laws for elections and government programs (i.e., Medi-Cal, Medicaid, welfare, etc.) that require public contact.
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 freely and equitably access and utilize public services that are available to the general public. 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. LEPs do not know about their right to an interpreter in many instances. 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.
Race and ethnicity are a challenge category because treating everyone the same and failing to provide language access constitutes facially neutral policies/practices. Facially neutral policies or practices are those that treat English-only speakers and LEPs the same but negatively affect LEPs. These practices result 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.
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 in California or nationwide. Conveying meaning from one language to another requires an unusual command of the language. 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.
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. 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.
Program Measurement and Evaluation
There is not systematic method to measure success
In California, there is no systematic way to track ‘public contact’ encounters and outcomes. There is no tracking system to quantify a return on investment when it comes to dollars spent on language access in the State. Public contact is the primary basis to trigger language access services. 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. Consider creating a language access policy that clearly outlines framework, strategies, responsibilities, resources, and expectations.
Accountability and Reporting
An area that needs investment and further research
In California, there is no enforcement body for failure or subpar language access services. The State has no way of verifying if agencies are leaving information out. Under the Dymally-Alatorre Act agencies are required to report documents they distribute. With the transition to the digital age, agencies upload documents on the web; hence, reporting small numbers of documents, and there is no reliable way to know if they are leaving anything out. There have been numerous attempts to amend the law in California. Translation services are only triggered based on the number of public contacts.
“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”