Can you guess how many languages are spoken in the United States? Off the top of their heads, most people might think it’s a dozen or so, maybe two dozen. That’s on the low side – way on the low side.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, no fewer than 350 different languages are spoken in the United States. Their review included many less-prevalent tongues such as Pennsylvania Dutch, Ukrainian, Turkish, Romanian and Amharic, but also accounted for 150 different Native North American languages such as Yupik, Dakota, Apache, Keres and Cherokee, collectively spoken by over 350,000 people.
Just some examples the language diversity we see across the country?
- In the New York metro area, at least 192 languages are spoken in people’s homes. One of the smaller language groups found there is Bengali, which still has 105,765 speakers. Today, more New Yorkers speak a foreign language that at any previous time in Census history.
- In Los Angeles, some 185 languages are spoken, with 54% of people aged 5-and-up using a language other than English at home.
- Dallas has 156 different tongues in use, with local idiosyncrasies like the fact Telugu has 12,630 speakers.
- The U.S. is already the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. If growth projections for the Latino population stay true, it’ll be the largest by 2050 with 132.8 million Latinos, 30% of whom will keep Spanish as their primary tongue.
- Arabic is now the seventh-most commonly spoken non-English language in U.S. homes, used by an estimated 1.1 million people ages 5 and older, a jump of 29% from 2010 to 2014.
For governments and public service organizations at every level – Federal, state, county, local – the fact that English isn’t universally spoken (and may never be) here is a challenge to constructive community relations and providing access to constituent services. Giving the public, including the non-English-speaking public, access to those services isn’t simply an ethical imperative, but a matter of law.
New York City recently expanded language services to citizens with limited English proficiency (LEP) via a new law requiring government agencies to translate documents in four more languages: Arabic, French, Urdu, and Polish. NYC now mandates support for 10 foreign tongues in all.
A Babel of consequences
What are only a few of the issues caused by a lack of multilingual access?
- It can obviously result in segments of the community being underserved, because interactions with government are more difficult. Members of these groups may simply throw their hands up in frustration, or are too intimidated by the process to engage in the first place.
- Services, even when provided, may not be efficiently delivered because of poor communication or a lack of information.
- Community faith in government can be injured because of these gaps in communications and responsiveness.
- Governments find themselves being taken to court or being pilloried in the press and social media over language accessibility; in one recent example, the Department of Human Services for Washington, D.C. had to defend itself against a civil action alleging it was in violation of language access laws.
A compromised constituent journey
The tactics and approaches used in serving non-English speakers through traditional public services processes? As you can imagine, they’ve been piecemeal and inadequate.
Governments in each community have had to decide what languages need to be addressed in their forms and documents. They’ve needed to translate existing forms into those languages, then keep an inventory of them on hand at all times.
For employees who aren’t capable in these languages, there’s the challenge of walking a non-English-speaker through filling out a form, or doing intake of information via interviews or office visits because forms and documents aren’t sufficient.
This all adds up to a highly compromised constituent experience, with their “journey” through engagement with government being a very rough and halting ride. They’re often left with less certainty than ever about what’s happening, or what the outcome of their experience will be.
All in all, it’s a failure of public service. But technology is now allowing governments to ease that journey.
The right e-forms can speak to every user
Multi-language support is now a feature of a few best-of-breed government workflow automation platforms, like our own SimpliGov workflow automation platform. Using these tools, a public service worker can design a “smart” e-form with multiple language options for the user embedded in it. The constituent, whether they’re accessing the form at an online portal, a kiosk or elsewhere, can choose their language and immediately use a translated version of the form.
Here’s how an e-form like this is designed in SimpliGov’s drag-and-drop Form Builder:
Each form field has a number of text elements associated with it: a form field label, hover-tip, placeholder text, sub-heading and instructions. SimpliGov allows the designer to implement conditional “text sets” when they’re building the form that apply to all those elements, as shown below:
The “end user” – your constituent – is shown a dropdown or button at the top of the form that displays different languages. When they pick one, the form dynamically changes the “text set” from, say, English to Spanish, so all the elements in the document are now readable to that person.
- For process managers, there’s now no need to draft multiple versions of the same form.
- For office employees, keeping printed copies of forms in different languages on hand becomes a thing of the past.
- For constituents, it’s a far more satisfying experience that reassures them of government’s concern for their needs.
From a workflow standpoint, this is an approach that keeps back-end reporting clean and simple, too, since all reporting is displayed using the “default” language. It also makes overall workflow design easier, since duplicate fields don’t need to be accommodated.
On a more sophisticated level, a user’s choice of language might be mapped to other data sources, like national, regional or cultural metadata, allowing their experience to become even more customized.
E-forms will be the bedrock of tomorrow’s governments
Multi-language forms aren’t a small component of how government needs to be servicing its populations. They’ll be the bedrock of an efficient and functioning public service infrastructure and bureaucracy.
The trend toward digital government and smart cities is growing, irresistibly driven by many factors.
So to make that new, future-friendly model of governance benefit everybody, it’s crucial to create interactions with constituents through e-forms, digital interfaces and user experiences that cater to each of us as an individual, no matter what language we speak.