As the United States and especially California become more diverse, the number of residents with limited proficiency in English is growing. For these people to access important services and fully participate in American life, language access services are essential, and city agencies are often legally required to offer these services. Creating an effective language access plan leads to better and more efficient use of your city's resources than reacting to needs as they appear.
California's Increasing Diversity
Millions of Americans have limited English proficiency (LEP), meaning that they have difficulty reading, writing, speaking or any combination of the three in English. Their lack of English skills can seriously inhibit their ability to live safe and healthy lives and to participate fully in public life. Getting and holding a job, finding a home, receiving education and accessing healthcare can all be extremely difficult for LEP individuals. In addition, exercising the rights and duties of American citizenship like voting and serving on juries require good communication in English if language access services are not available.
The U.S. Census considers a respondent to have limited English proficiency when the person indicates on the census that they speak English at any level less than "very well." This includes anyone age five or older who says that they speak English "well," "not well," or not at all," so the LEP group covers a range of proficiency levels. While most LEP Americans are immigrants, nearly 20% of this population was born in the United States to foreign-born parents.
The Census Bureau's most recent 2020 estimate is that about 8.3% of the U.S. population is of LEP. This rate is much higher in California. The most recent census data indicate that 44.2% of Californians speak a language other than English at home. While some counties have LEP populations smaller than the national average, many of California's counties have rates of 13% or higher. Imperial County has the highest rate of LEP individuals at 33.4%. The latest data shows that California's population is becoming both more diverse and more urban, with three-fourths of census tracts having fewer white residents than they did in 2010.
As California's cities become larger and more diverse, setting up a language access plan becomes more important than ever. Creating such a plan can seem complex, but depending on the area's needs, it can be as simple as providing written instructions for how to contact a service that provides interpretation by phone. Establishing a written plan is ultimately more cost effective than making decisions as needs come up, because the plan allows the city agency to provide language access services more efficiently.
Federally, a 2000 executive order clarified that denying LEP individuals access to federal programs is considered discrimination based on national origin, which violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Court decisions have established that there is not a constitutional right to language access, but not providing appropriate language access services can be considered illegal discrimination. Local laws or ordinances that set English as the official language or require business to be conducted in English do not override these federal protections.
While California's constitution sets English as the official language, state law also requires city agencies to offer language access accommodations. This is established by both the California Civil Rights Act and the Bilingual Services Act. Agencies that do not comply with these legal requirements are at risk of lawsuits and loss of state funding. While agencies need to make language access services available, they are not required to automatically conduct all of their business and communications in multiple languages.
State law allows cities and counties to evaluate their own residents' needs when setting language access policies. California requires that language services be available when a city agency serves a substantial number of LEP individuals. You can determine whether there is a substantial group based on an absolute number, a percentage of the population or a combination. Oakland's language ordinance considers such a group to be 10,000 or more city residents who speak a non-English language. In San Francisco, the threshold is 10,000 residents or 5% of the people using the service in question.
Designing a Language Access Plan
Good language access plans start with needs assessments. Track the number of LEP individuals and which programs they use, and offer surveys to get suggestions and feedback from the LEP population. The two categories involved in language access are translation and interpretation. Translation converts written documents into another language, and interpretation deals with spoken communication. Depending on your city's needs and demographics, you may need to translate your website and forms and other documents your agency gives to the population it serves. There are a few different ways to provide interpretation services. These can include hiring bilingual employees for public-facing roles, hiring or contracting with professional interpreters and recruiting volunteer interpreters from your community.
In addition to actually providing these services, your language access plan also needs to include making sure that LEP individuals are aware that free language services are available to them. The policy also needs to include measures for enforcement. Realistically, your plan will not be fully implemented immediately, so make sure to prioritize appropriately. Start with disaster and emergency preparedness agencies, as effective communication during these events is essential for public safety. Then work on having online information translated. This can be logistically simpler than scheduling live interpretation, and can be more accessible to those who need it, as many LEP individuals may be uncomfortable seeking in-person services.
Make sure the details of your language access plan are shared with all the agencies in your city that will need to use it. Consider how to make the most of your existing language resources. This can help make your language policy as cost-effective as possible. Partnering with community organizations is also an important step, which can help you promote the services to the LEP individuals who need them, recruit volunteers and understand the LEP community's needs.
The need for language access in cities will continue to grow as the population with limited English proficiency does. Proactively implanting an access plan can help cities meet this need so that all their residents can receive necessary services and fully participate in city life.