Reaching out to non-English speakers
When it comes to considering measures to reach out to residents who speak little or no English, many local governments across the country have said, “yes.” Or “si.” Or “ja.” The number of U.S. residents whose primary language is not English has grown in recent decades, and the trend has spurred cities and counties to find various methods of outreach to foreign-language-speaking populations. The resulting initiatives include subtitled broadcasts of commission meetings, street signs with foreign languages and Web sites that are translated into various tongues.
In the 2000 U.S. Census, 18 percent of the U.S. population aged 5 and over — a total of 47 million people — said they spoke a non-English language at home. Those statistics represent an increase from 1990, when 14 percent, or 31.8 million residents, said the same thing. In the 1980 Census, 11 percent, or 23.1 million residents, reported using a non-English language in their homes.
Local governments have responded to the changing demographics in various ways. Last fall, Miami Beach, Fla., which has a large Hispanic population, began offering Spanish subtitles on its government access channel’s rebroadcasts of city commission meetings. The city also has contracted with Miami-based Language Speak to provide real-time Spanish audio translations during the live broadcasts of the meetings. Viewers can hear the live Spanish audio track by using their television’s secondary audio program (SAP) function.
To create the subtitles that are featured on the rebroadcasts, Miami Beach sends a video recording of the meeting to the local office of Studio City, Calif.-based TM Systems. Translators at the firm then craft subtitles that often more fully capture the nuances and complexities of the meetings’ dialogue, says Ramiro Inguanzo, chief of staff for the city manager. While Language Speak offers instant translations, often while more than one person is talking at once, TM Systems has time to fully qualify or define difficult subject matter.
Many communities are communicating with non-English-speaking residents on the Internet. Westchester County, N.Y.; Orlando, Fla.; Dayton, Ohio; Sacramento, Calif.; and Dallas are among the many local jurisdictions that offer some foreign-language translations of information on their Web sites. Until about two months ago, Denver used a private vendor to provide several translations of a large majority of its Web site’s pages.
However, the adaptations were very literal translations that often failed to convey the proper meaning, says Steve Hansen, the marketing and content manager for the city’s Office of Television and Internet Services. The problem was with the state of automatic translation software, he says. “It hasn’t gotten much better technologically than when it was invented around 10 years ago,” Hansen adds. “It’s pretty rough because basically it just matches word pairs from one language to another. It doesn’t take into account context.”
After the city’s new General Services director arrived last year, he decided to discontinue the service because of its drawbacks. Now, Hansen says, the city may consider hiring people to translate certain portions of the Web site, which can be drastically more expensive than using automation software.
Outreach has not been limited to television and computers, however. A decade ago, Houston installed about 80 Chinese street signs after residents lobbied for them. “There was a small level of complaints from residents who asked, ‘Why are my tax dollars going to pay for this?’’ says Bill Hlavacek, the public works maintenance manager with the Traffic and Transportation Division. When the city put about 40 Vietnamese street signs in its Midtown neighborhood in the mid-1990s, it required those pushing for the signs to pay for their creation and installation.