Posted on January 28, 2005

Communities Struggle to Break Down Language Barriers

Brigid Schulte, Washington Post, Jan. 27

Alexandria’s Department of Human Services on Mount Vernon Avenue and find the world. A poster announces in 12 languages — from Amharic to Somali — that free interpreter services are available. Another notes that brochures are available in 24 languages. A caseworker talks quietly in Spanish to a worried-looking woman about her electric bill. The scene is little different from waiting rooms in Arlington and Fairfax counties and Falls Church.

Because of the surge in ethnic diversity and immigration in Northern Virginia, local governments are struggling to make sure they can communicate with the people who really need them.

For years, health, police and fire departments in Northern Virginia have had to hire bilingual workers and provide translation services just to do their jobs. Now, recent initiatives are forcing every government office and agency to assess its needs and develop a comprehensive, federally mandated language access plan.


As a result of putting together the language access plan, each agency is now hooked into a national translation service called Language Line, where it instantly can get translators on the phone who speak any of more than 100 languages. Social workers can now access these translators via their cell phones. Plus, Alexandria has just come up with a list of certified local interpreters who are qualified to translate documents.


The federal government mandates that local governments receiving federal funds must offer language services for those who have limited understanding of the English language — or see that funding withdrawn. The Department of Justice ruled in recent years that failing to provide language translation constitutes a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on national origin.

If a community’s non-English-speaking population reaches 3,000 people or 10 percent of the total population, whichever is less, the Justice Department requires the jurisdiction to translate all documents and information into that language. Spanish is the only language in Northern Virginia that currently meets that threshold.

Federal law also requires immediate access to translation of any language; thus the phone service, which charges $1.60 a minute for common foreign languages and $3.69 a minute for more “exotic” languages such as Bengali, Maldonado said.

So, with 68 percent of the state’s foreign-born population living in Northern Virginia, local governments have had to take action and find ways to bear the cost.

Maldonado said the Department of Human Services recently spent about $800 a month on phone translation. “And that’s because, with our bilingual staff, we don’t have to worry about Spanish,” she said. The police department’s monthly phone bill often reaches $3,000 just for phone interpretation.