You Can’t Read This!

You can’t read this! You can’t even understand the words that are coming out of my mouth! Because I speak English – and you don’t.

Actually, I had that a bit backwards. You and I understand this post just fine because we speak and read in English, but if you don’t speak English then you’re out of luck.

I grew up in small town Texas, so I never really appreciated the multitude of tongues that the human race possesses. I never imagined that there could be whole neighborhoods in America where you can speak nothing but Spanish, or Chinese, or Korean, or Polish – and have no trouble at all. Working in the trenches at a field office in Chicago was a real ear-opener for me.

One of the challenges of doing gov in the trenches is that some claimants do not speak a word of English and you still have to provide the same service as everyone else. (And rightly so)

About 80% of the time, it’s somebody who speaks only Spanish. Spanish is no problema – The State hires enough Spanish speakers so that those claimants get serviced pretty easy. In fact, about half of the staff at my office speaks Spanish. When the claimants come into the office, it’s easy to service them. We have a number of forms in Spanish and our certification system speaks Spanish.

Even I’ve been able to pick up quite a bit of Bureaucratic Spanish (being able to speak just enough Spanish to help the claimant – just don’t ask me what’s for dinner).

If all we had to worry about was Spanish, we’d be in pretty good shape. We have applications in Spanish and our certification system is in Spanish. However, there are at least two-dozen languages spoken in Chicago such as Polish, Arabic, Tagalog, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Czech, Russian, Hindi, Bantu, and some that I can’t even pronounce! And there all in my service area!

We use a translator service to talk to those claimants – it’s time consuming but it gets the job done. If they come in confused, they’ll come out understanding. The thing that bothers me as a govie is that our letters and website are only….in….ENGLISH!

We know we have hundreds, if not thousands, of claimants who don’t speak English – but all of our letters are in English! The website is only in English – despite the agency having a huge number of Spanish speakers. (To be fair, we are re-doing the website and they may be working on that – but this is one of my pet rants). I’m not actually sure how anyone who speaks an uncommon language actually reads our mail – much less understands anything we send out. (#PlainLanguage is a rant from another day, but you get my point) I see a lot of uncommon language claimants come in with their kids, who learned English at school and Arabic/Polish/Korean/ect at home. I imagine they help read our letters too, but I’m still a bit of a worry-wort when it comes to the language gap.

You want to know who can speak to claimants in a huge number of languages? The United States Census Bureau. They put us all to shame. Seriously, their website has a changing graphic that shows every language spoken in the US of A. It’s fan-freaking-tastic. Unfortunately, I imagine it must significant amounts of time and expense to be able to do that.

To me, this is a both an OpenGov and Gov 2.0 issue. If we can have an iPhone app that translates street signs, can’t we find some way to translate our correspondence and our websites more efficiently? Thoughts?

Cross-posted at http://govinthetrenches.com

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Stephen Peteritas

Man I like this post. I think it’s crazy that the U.S is pretty much the only (developed) country where the majority of citizens only speak one language. If we encouraged other languages (not just spanish and french) from a young age this problem could be nipped in the butt within 20 years.

Peter Sperry

@Stephan — I’ve seen similar problems in just about every developed countyr I’ve visited and the U.S. is actually better than most in accomadating minority language speakers. The absolute craziest experience was visiting China where our official Chinese government guide spoke Mandarin but very little Cantonese. We were fine in Beijing and Xian but when we got to Shanghai, he was unable to translate for us. Fortunately, we had a tour leader from the Library of Congress who spoke fluent Cantonese and was able to fill in. Spain has similar problems with Castelians who cannot (or willnot) speak Catalan or Basque. It is also a sore point among Mayans tribes in the Yucatan that Mexico required them to learn Spanish rather than provide services in their native language. We often fail to understand just how deep ethnic pride (bigotry???) runs on foriegn countries and are consequently disapointed by our own. In my experience, the U.S. is not only the most multi-ethnic country on the planet, we are also the most accomadating toward minority language speakers.

Christopher Whitaker

We do good as far as translation services goes – the problem is more with the things we sent out only being in English.

I agree w/ Stephan in regards to bilingual education. The problem is not just the common languages, but the ones that you and I have never heard of. We’re a nation of immirgrants and that doesn’t just mean Europe and Mexico – we’re talking about Africa and the Middle East too

Jeff Ribeira

I think the translation of a website into multiple languages (relevant to your users) is definitely a worthy investment, and arguably a necessity in today’s US cultural environment. I agree that to be able to translate memos and other communication materials in multiple languages would be nice, but the logistics just seem a bit tough. Translation is by no means an easy task, even for native speakers.

In regards to bilingual education, I completely agree with what has been previously said. It would be great to have a wider range of languages offered. I, for one, would have loved that in High School. Although, the possibility of that ever actually happening on a large scale in the public school system is also tough to conceive at the moment. I think it could definitely happen, but it would need a few years to develop and gain widespread interest.

Carol Davison

It appears to me that one achieves economies of scale by choosing to publish in one language. Because the majority of our customers speak English, we hire English speakers by issuing, and scoring Federal job applicaitons in English. Can’t eveything else be translated by BING translator?

Christina Morrison

Agree with what has been said here – Although the long-term solution might be better language education, the short term solution might be better use of technology – such as a quick note in every letter in multiple languages that directs them to translations of the letter online, or to an online chat with a translator who could help answer their questions to save them the trip in to your office.

Chris Bennett

Great post. I’ve always found working with government on multi-lingual sites to be a royal pain in the ass since everyone argues about the style/exactness of the translation. Advice out of that: one cook in the kitchen. Don’t have multiple people in your department who speak Spanish for example each go to town on a translator if the quality is good to begin with. Big waste of time and money and makes people avoid the headache again in the future.

Christopher Whitaker

@Carol – The major problem with BING translation is that the letter that I send out determines if they’ll have money to put food on the table – I don’t trust machine translation. Also, the people that don’t speak English are a big part of the digital divide – I don’t think many of these people own a computer or have easy-access to the internet. This is one of those scenarios in that’s more OpenGov than Gov 2.0. The Technologies may give us a solution, but being able to speak different tongues as an agency is an OpenGov issue.

Although, if I had a website that was multi-lingual than we could always have them using a computer inside the office. Actually – that may indeed be the solution to help better serve claimants without the use of a translator service.

Allen Sheaprd


I to do not trust machine translators. Even human ones make mistakes.

How do we get everyone to speak English ?

YouTube video’s ? Websites with lessons?

As you pointed out – those who do not speak English are on the needy side of the digital divide.

Christopher Whitaker

“How do we get everyone to speak English?”

No idea – I’ve had a hell of a time trying to learn another language – it’s not easy (and it’s not like Spanish is immensely different from English) I can’t imagine going from our alphabet to THIS (Ethiopian Script). Most of our web browser can’t even decipher Ethiopian – but that’s one of the languages that are spoken in our service area.

The problem really does affect immigrants more than any other population – I mean fresh-off-the-boat immigrants. They come here in search of the American Dream like every generation before them. Because they don’t speak English – they end up at the bottom of the economic ladder. Yes, they should make an effort to learn English – but if they’ve only been here a year or two you can’t expect anyone to pick up on English that quick – particularly if your native tongue is completely different than English.

There are a lot of ESL classes offered in my service areas – many of which are run by non-profits. And I do think that problem is one of those that are best handled by our Non-Profit Sector.

Allen Sheaprd

Many non profits seem to work because they are flexible. No “corporate’ paperwork or red tape. They see, agree and do.

IMO – many working at non profit or volunteer group are doing the work for either the joy or from the heart. That is – “its not a job”

Two years is such a short time yet, this is the hard part, many kids come to 3rd, 4th, 5th grade in US public school in October only to be near grade level by June. Yes, being young helps but they are also immersed with ESL teachers for hours a day.

Just to be clear we are talking about information, not just instructions. Logo, pictures, glyphs can be used to say “Water”,”No smoking” etc. A few tasks can be expressed using only stick figures.

However to be functional, one needs a way to understand and practice the words and culture. IMO that means both parties understand each other. Teachers who understand the student, understand how the student learns. They also understand the student’s mis-conceptions.

Thre was a TED presentation on this. They put computer out in the public. The kids had to learn a written language to use the computer. Without aide they did. Another example was paring a british grandmother with several India students. The grand mother would spend a few hours in teleconference with the group each day. The progress was phenominal. Better than school. Once again – volunteers working did so much more.

Hope this helps.

Peter Sperry

One thing to keep in mind is that many government documents are not only written in English but in English that has been scrubbed by agency lawyers to meet legislative and regulatory guidleines and stand up in court if necessary. A great many native English speakers have difficulty fully understanding these documents. Many agencies will have Spanish language documents that have gone through the legal scrub but when you start getting beyond that, it becomes problamatic. And it is often critical for the customer to have a clear understanding of their rights, obligations, benefits and eligibility criteria as articulated in the official, English language documents scrubbed byt the lawyers. A real fast way to make work for your General Counsels office is to have an amature volunteer translator promise benefits that late have to be revoked or worse yet reclaimed.