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