The State of Language Access in America

The State of Language Access in America - Blog Post Featured Image

The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. It was created to prevent discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In the year 2000, congress passed Executive Order 13166 to improve access to federal services.  It defined National Origin Discrimination against those whose first language is not English with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). It requires federal agencies to provide meaningful access to federal services for those with LEP. Yet, progress in the last 21 years has been surprisingly slow.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic shed light on the need for language access improvements. Now more than ever, information about the virus, prevention, and vaccinations must be accessible in every language. About 20% of people in the US speak a language other than English. The 2020 US Census served as a great example of the problem. It showed that 99% of households would have been able to complete the census in their first language with the census resources made available in 59 languages. And, as a first for the US Census, live phone assistance was also offered in 13 languages.

In early 2021, democrats introduced the COVID-19 Language Access Act, H.R. 1009. This bill required federal agencies receiving COVID-19 aid to translate all English written material for the general public. The translated documents would be required within seven days of publishing. Languages included Spanish, Arabic, Cambodian, Chinese, Haitian Creole, French, Hindi, Hmong, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Russian, Tagalog, Urdu, Vietnamese, Greek, Polish, Thai, and Portuguese. The bill has not yet passed.

New York City doubled its COVID-19 documents from 13 to 26 languages. The NYC Health Department’s language access policy was also updated. It now includes guidance to staff members who provide direct services to clients. The speaker’s bureau trained more than 70 staff members to deliver multi-language COVID-19 presentations citywide.

In California, court efforts focused on developing and improving LEP services. They led a five-year study on language needs and interpreter use in the court system. California is establishing a Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) program for the judicial branch. VRI was implemented in 15 courthouses. The program will expand user access to qualified interpreters and include VRI training. California used a language access survey to find improvement areas. And, while bilingual interpreting exams were suspended during 2020, additional support and training were planned for candidates with near passing scores in 2021.

New York and California are setting the bar for language access. But, there is still a long road ahead. Some states still rely solely on machine translation, like Google Translate, to share information. In Virginia, Spanish speakers make up 61% of non-English speakers. The Virginia Health Department website relies on Google Translate to provide information LEP residents. In January 2021, the website told visitors, “The [COVID-19] vaccine is not required.” Using Google translate, Spanish-speaking visitors “the vaccine is not necessary.” And the problem is not limited to Spanish speakers. Korean speakers make up seven percent of LEP residents in Virginia. They struggled to access unemployment information that was only offered in English and Spanish. The Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) claimed to offer phone interpretation services. But, calls to the VEC ended if the caller chose a language other than English or Spanish. Even the Interagency Working Group on Limited English Proficiency website lacks language resources. While the site offers individual language directories and PDF resources, after nearly 20 years online, most of the site’s pages are only offered in English.

While language access issues are gaining awareness in government policy, the progress is reactive to the pandemic. A proactive approach to the problem is necessary for sustainable advancement. LEP communities remain grossly underserved. While some cities have expanded language access, the problem continues to swell with more challenges developing daily. LEP Communities need well-trained interpreters with greater access to under-served areas. Though far from perfect, the progress has improved access to information. Congress must continue to build on these efforts beyond the pandemic and expand on nationwide services for LEP communities.