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Language minority


									Opening Our Doors to
Language-Minority Clients

By Paul M. Uyehara

                                  Mr. C, a 62-year-old recent Albanian            the two programs reviewed client services.
                                  immigrant, came to our office for help with     A key finding of the committee was that
                                  a welfare problem. He showed pride and          the programs were serving language and
                                  determination in explaining his problem in      cultural minorities poorly. We were seeing
                                  slow, broken English. His lawyer suggested      an increasing number of clients such as
                                  an interpreter might help, but Mr. C said       Mr. C., for whom we could not provide
                                  it was not necessary as he could under-         the best representation without offering
                                  stand and just needed a little time to find     language services. Asian clients, estimated
                                  the right words in English. After talking       to constitute perhaps 7 percent of the
                                  about the problem some more, the attor-         population, accounted for only 1 percent
                                  ney complimented Mr. C on his English           of the programs’ clients. And the closure
                                  but explained that an interpreter was           of our Northeast office, which had served
                                  needed since each of them had to under-         a diverse low-income area with substan-
                                  stand everything the other was saying. Mr.      tial numbers of white, African American,
                                  C appeared aggravated and exclaimed,            Latino, and Asian families, had an inter-
                                  “It’s impossible! It’s too much trouble.”       esting impact. That office had housed a
                                        The attorney called a telephone-inter-    clinic that handled custody and support
                                  preting service, and an Albanian inter-         matters for the entire city. The proportion
                                  preter was on the speakerphone in about         of the clinic’s clients who were Latino
                                  thirty seconds. Mr. C’s face lit up. He         dropped from about 23 percent to about
                                  explained that he never imagined we             14 percent when the clinic moved down-
                                  could get an interpreter so quickly! He said    town from northeast Philadelphia. Com-
                                  that, of course, speaking in Albanian was       mittee members were also concerned that
                                  much easier for him, but no one had ever        clients who spoke neither English nor
                                  provided an interpreter before, and so he       Spanish were receiving poor service even
                                  was doing his best in English. He did not       when they did get in the door. Both pro-
                                  want to cause any trouble or have to come       grams lacked reliable, quick access to
                                  back later.                                     competent interpreting and translating ser-
                                                                                  vices. The report recommended that the
Paul M. Uyehara is a staff
                                  In 1998, after one of only two remaining        programs comprehensively increase out-
attorney in the Language Access
                                  neighborhood offices of Community Legal         reach and services to underserved lan-
Project of Community Legal
                                  Services closed, and Philadelphia Legal         guage-minority populations.
Services, 1424 Chestnut St.,
                                  Assistance was created in response to the            With support from the William Penn
Philadelphia, PA 19102;
                                  new Legal Services Corporation (LSC)            Foundation, Community Legal Services
                                  restrictions, a joint committee of staff from   created the Language Access Project in

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                                                                                           Serving Language-Minority Clients

1999 and assigned two lawyers and a para-        ever, improvement in language capacity
legal to staff the project, all on a part-time   is essential.
basis. The project’s charge was to imple-
ment the committee’s recommendations             I. The Impetus for Change
to expand service to immigrants and lim-         Multiple factors are pushing legal aid pro-
ited-English-proficient clients by deliver-      grams to improve service to language-
ing services in languages other than             minority clients. The increase both in the
English and Spanish, reaching out to immi-       foreign-born population and in the num-
grant communities, reviewing case-accep-         ber of geographic areas where immigrants
tance practices, and advocating on lan-          reside has made the issue relevant for
guage rights issues. The work of the             many more programs than in the past. At
Language Access Project led to an increase       the same time the increasing understand-
in Community Legal Services intake               ing of language access as a civil rights
among non-Spanish-speaking limited-              issue is causing legal aid programs to
English-proficient language groups of            examine their own practices before de-
some 250 percent over three years, while         manding linguistic access to other gov-
overall intake among limited-English-pro-        ernment services for their clients.
ficient clients (including Spanish speak-
ers) increased by about 50 percent during        A. Demographic Trends
the same period.                                      The population of the United States
     To assist other programs that have          has changed dramatically since the cre-
yet to undertake such changes, I set out         ation of legal aid programs in the 1960s
below some of the issues that arose and          and 1970s. Some changes are readily
lessons we learned as we pushed Com-             apparent, while others may have gone
munity Legal Services in a new direction         virtually unnoticed. The foreign-born por-
to improve service to our total client pop-      tion of the population has more than dou-
ulation. I focus particularly on ways to         bled since 1970 (see fig. 1), and immi-
approach the essential first step of being       grants now make up a larger proportion
able to deliver services in other languages.     of the population than at any time since
Our approach is only one among various           1930.3 Moreover, these changes have
options that can lead to improved service        accelerated; the foreign-born population
to language-minority communities; oth-           has increased by 57 percent just since
ers may adopt other methods.1 Working            1990.4 Spanish emerged as the predomi-
effectively with increasingly diverse client     nant language spoken by the foreign-born
groups requires addressing issues other          only in 1970 and has become the domi-
than language.2 For most programs, how-          nant second language since then.5 An esti-

 1 See, e.g., Joann H. Lee, A Case Study: Lawyering to Meet the Needs of Monolingual Asian
   and Pacific Islander Communities in Los Angeles, 36 CLEARINGHOUSE REV. 172 (May–June
   2002) (exploring a model that relies on an extensive network of bilingual staff and part-
   nerships with other providers of legal services and community organizations to staff
   Asian language intake lines and outreach clinics).
 2 See Zenobia Lai et al., The Lessons of the Parcel C Struggle: Reflections on Community
   Lawyering, 6 UCLA ASIAN PAC. AM. L.J. 1 (2000) (Greater Boston Legal Services commu-
   nity lawyering approach to advocacy for clients in Boston Chinatown).
   (2002),; CAMPBELL J. GIBSON
   UNITED STATES: 1850 TO 1990 (1999),
   mentation/twps0029/twps0029.html. The accompanying graph was also prepared from
   data found in these sources.
 4 Compare U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, supra note 3, with U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, Table DP-2: PROFILE
 5 Compare Gibson & Lennon, supra note 3, tbls. 5–6, with U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, CENSUS
   2000 Supplementary Survey tbl. P034 (2000),
   DTTable?_ts=62969168047 (2001).

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Serving Language-Minority Clients

                         Figure 1.—Foreign-Born Portion of Population

      [Source: U.S. Census Bureau.]

                                      mated 60 percent of those who speak a          are settling all across the country and are
                                      language other than English at home,           no longer confined to states such as Calif-
                                      regardless of country of birth, are Spanish    ornia or cities such as New York that
                                      speakers.6 The Latino population in the        have traditionally had sizable immigrant
                                      United States increased by a factor of         populations. Limited-English-proficient
                                      almost 40 between 1960 and 2000, but           communities are now found in rural as
                                      more than a third of this population           well as urban areas, in the Midwest and
                                      entered the country or was born after          South as well as on the coasts.9 The for-
                                      1990.7 Similarly the Asian-Pacific Islander    eign languages that newcomers speak
                                      population has exploded through immi-          have also changed as greater numbers of
                                      gration, with the number of foreign-born       immigrants arrived from Latin America,
                                      in this group tripling in the 1970s and then   Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa, out-
                                      doubling in the 1980s. Two-thirds of the       numbering immigrants from Western
                                      current Asian-Pacific Islander population      Europe.10 Communities that have been
                                      is foreign-born, and about half of this        unaccustomed to the presence of immi-
                                      group arrived in the 1990s.8                   grants are learning to accommodate sub-
                                           The changes are not simply the result     stantial immigrant populations. Areas
                                      of increased numbers. New Americans            long accustomed to large immigrant pop-

                                       6 U.S.  CENSUS BUREAU, CENSUS 2000 SUPPLEMENTARY SURVEY, supra note 5. The Census Bureau
                                         estimates that in 2000 more than 26 million people 5 and older spoke Spanish at home.
                                       7 U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, CENSUS 2000, Table PHC-T-1 tbl. 4 (2001),
                                         population/cen2000/phc-t1/tab04.pdf (2001).
                                         NATION’S ASIAN FOREIGN BORN POPULATION (2000); U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, supra note 7.
                                       9 E.g., Yilu Zhao, Wave of Pupils Lacking English Strains Schools, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 5, 2002,
                                         at A1.
                                      10 In 2000 the top five languages other than English spoken at home, regardless of country
                                         of birth, were Spanish, Chinese, French (including Patois and Cajun), Indic (Hindi,
                                         Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, and Gujarati), and German. U.S. CENSUS, CENSUS 2000, Table
                                         P034, supra note 6. Compare this to the top five languages spoken by foreign-born resi-
                                         dents in 1960: German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Yiddish. GIBSON & LENNON, supra
                                         note 3.

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                                                                                            Serving Language-Minority Clients

ulations have had to adjust to different       the needs of a changing client commu-
languages.                                     nity. The legal problems that these clients
     These demographic changes have            experience may involve language or
naturally changed the composition of the       immigration status or may arise out of
low-income population as well. Poverty         cultural norms with which advocates
rates among the foreign-born are higher        have little experience. Programs that fail
than among the native-born, and among          to respond to new issues or to learn to
the foreign-born population the poverty        deliver services in new ways risk losing
rate for noncitizens is more than twice        their relevance.
that of naturalized citizens.11
     The dramatic growth in immigration        B. Poor Communication =
and immigrants’ settlement in areas unac-         Poor Lawyering
customed to such populations have other             At the center of virtually everything
significance. More than 21 million of those    advocates do with and for their clients is
5 and older, or more than 8 percent of         communication, both oral and written.
the total U.S. population in that age brack-   Communication is essential to obtain facts,
et, speak English less than “very well,” a     understand a client’s goals and concerns,
50 percent increase in those with limited      give advice, negotiate, and litigate. When
English proficiency since 1990.12 Many         advocate and client are not fluent in the
are not U.S. citizens; the number whose        same language, the simplest tasks can
status is undocumented was estimated at        become difficult for both. Assuring that
8.5 million in 2000.13 Immigrants with         the two can communicate well when one
varying cultural backgrounds and famil-        is not proficient in English is a matter of
iarity with different kinds of legal systems   professional responsibility, and this re-
are a special challenge for advocates.         sponsibility falls on the program, which is,
Providing quality legal services for the       after all, paid to deliver quality legal ser-
low-income segment of the newcomer             vices. Misunderstood facts or goals can
population requires sensitivity to issues      obviously lead to erroneous pleadings or
of language, citizenship, and culture.         legal strategies, implicating malpractice or
Especially after the wave of mergers that      ethics questions.
LSC has spurred among legal aid pro-
grams, not surprisingly programs now           C. The Civil Rights Angle
serve at least one substantial language-            Just as demographic realities have
minority population. The demographic           changed, so has the legal setting in which
changes mean that programs that fail to        we operate, in that the rights of language
create or upgrade language policies will       minorities are receiving increased atten-
increasingly exclude or provide inferior       tion. Programs that fail to provide lin-
services to clients on the basis of the        guistically accessible services may violate
clients’ ability to speak English.             clients’ civil rights under federal, state, or
     Programs that cannot deliver better       local laws barring discrimination based
services to limited-English-proficient         on national origin. Title VI of the Civil
clients also risk becoming detached from       Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination

11 Of  foreign-born residents, 16.8 percent were below the federal poverty level in 1999,
   compared to 11.2 percent of the native-born. Lisa Lollock, The Foreign Born Population
   in the United States: March 2000, U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, CURRENT POPULATION REP. P20-534
   CHARACTERISTICS: 1990, supra note 4.
   STATES 12 (2001).

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                                based upon national origin by recipients             encounter more challenges when seeking
                                of federal funds.14 Language is a recog-             to advocate on their behalf.19
                                nized proxy for national origin.15 Dis-
                                crimination need not be intended to vio-             II. Assessing Needs
                                late Title VI regulations.16 Pres. William           In redirecting its activities to ensure that
                                J. Clinton issued an executive order in              the needs of language-minority clients are
                                2000 mandating that federal agencies                 met, a legal aid program must consider
                                adopt language access policies for them-             the nature of the client community and
                                selves and require recipients of their fund-         its own resources.
                                ing to ensure that persons of limited
                                English proficiency have meaningful ac-              A. Client Language Needs
                                cess to government-funded programs and                    The first step in making programs
                                benefits.17 Numerous federal departments             more accessible to clients with limited
                                and agencies have issued policy guidance             English proficiency is to conduct a lan-
                                regarding language access, under both                guage-focused assessment of both the
                                the Clinton and Bush administrations. LSC            client community and the program. The
                                has not yet issued guidance on services to           program should gather data on its exist-
                                limited-English-proficient clients but is            ing caseload to determine the proportion
                                considering doing so.18                              of clients whose English proficiency is
                                     Many legal aid programs receive                 limited, the primary languages that they
                                financial support, directly or indirectly,           speak, and the extent to which the pro-
                                from federal sources other than LSC, such            gram is using language services. Programs
                                as the Department of Justice; the programs           that cannot gather this information may
                                also sometimes receive funds from state              survey staff members, especially the in-
                                or local government programs that are in             take staff, informally. Fiscal personnel can
                                turn funded by the federal government.               tabulate expenditures for contracted lan-
                                Of course, even programs that are not cov-           guage services. The program should also
                                ered by such requirements would likely               compare how many clients receive full
                                have difficulty articulating any sound rea-          legal representation and how many
                                sons why they should not adhere to the               receive limited services such as brief
                                same civil rights standards that apply to            advice or a referral. These numbers
                                federally funded programs. This is espe-             should indicate the language spoken by
                                cially true if the program may pursue lan-           clients who find their way to the intake
                                guage-based complaints on behalf of                  stage and those who are actually being
                                clients against entities that are subject to         represented.
                                Title VI. Programs that are unable to deliv-              Also gather information about the
                                er legal services effectively to limited-            geographic area that the program serves.
                                English-proficient clients will naturally            Demographic information from the 2000

                                    14 “No   person in the United States shall, on ground of race, color, or national origin be
                                       excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination
                                       under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000d
                                    15 E.g., Gutierrez v. Mun. Court of S.E. Judicial Dist., 838 F.2d 1031 (9th Cir. 1988), vacated
                                       as moot, 490 U.S. 1016 (1989).
                                    16 Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974) (Clearinghouse No. 3,321) (failure to provide special
                                       language instruction to Chinese students violates Title VI regulations).
                                    17 Exec. Order No. 13166, 65 Fed. Reg. 50121 (Aug. 16, 2000).
                                    18 The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) requested comment on whether it should issue
                                       guidance on providing services to limited-English-proficient clients. 68 Fed. Reg. 1210
                                       (Jan. 9, 2003). The notice raises some interesting issues about whether LSC-funded pro-
                                       grams are recipients of federal financial support for Title VI purposes and points out that
                                       the programs are contractually obligated to avoid national-origin discrimination.
                                    19 See, e.g., Victor Goode & Phyllis Flowers, Invisibility of Clients of Color: The Intersection
                                       of Language, Culture, and Race in Legal Services Practice, 36 CLEARINGHOUSE REV. 109
                                       (May–June 2002).

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census is available online at www.census.
gov. Look for data on households or indi-                             Finding Census Figures
viduals who do not speak English “very              Go to
well” and for tabulations by primary lan-
guage, by race, of foreign-born individu-           Click on your state.
als, and of poverty.20 Community organi-            Select a county. A chart will show demographic information for that
zations and other agencies may also have            county and the state as a whole, including the percentages of Asians;
useful data. The point is to identify the           Latinos; foreign-born; people speaking a language other than English
languages spoken in your service area and           at home; and poverty based on the 2000 census.
their relative prevalence. Also, under-             Click on the “Browse More Data Sets” link, then on “Social Character-
standing the geographic distribution of             istics,” to view county statistics regarding the foreign-born popula-
language groups is important.                       tion and region of origin; those who speak English less than very well
     Since sorting 2000 census data simul-          for Spanish and two general language groups; poverty; and break-
taneously by English language ability and           down of Asians and Latinos by country of origin.
by income does not appear doable, gen-
erating a direct tally of the low-income
limited-English-proficient population may       whether the manner and methods of deliv-
not be possible. However, one can cal-          ering client services, or the types of ser-
culate separately the size of each catego-      vices provided, are making the program
ry in an area as small as a census tract or     less accessible to limited-English-proficient
block group and thus locate at least            clients generally or to specific language
roughly potential clients with limited          groups. Aside from the obvious—that lim-
English proficiency. Race-specific pover-       ited-English-proficient clients are not seek-
ty calculations in specific geographic areas    ing service because of language barriers or
also are available, and these data may          lack of familiarity with the program—
help locate concentrations of low-income        numerous issues deserve consideration.
Latinos and Asians. U.S. Census Partner-        These include
ship and Data Services specialists in each
regional census office can guide or train       I   location of offices and availability of
on data gathering, and customized data          public transportation (Are your offices
reports are also available.21                   more convenient for some groups than
     With these data in hand, compare the       others? Are offices located in an area
eligible client population with the clients     unfamiliar to or uncomfortable for some
that the program actually represents, to        groups?);
determine if any groups are underserved.        I    the impact of requiring telephone
Does the percentage of the income-eligi-        communication to obtain services (Many
ble population that is limited-English-pro-     programs rely on centralized telephone
ficient roughly correlate with the percent-     intake systems. Can someone who does
age of clients whose English proficiency is     not understand English (or Spanish) pen-
limited? Is the program serving clients from    etrate the system? Is service available to
geographic areas that data suggest should       someone without a phone? Clients whose
contain high concentrations of low-income       English proficiency is limited may prefer
limited-English-proficient families? Do         in-person contact because they assume that
some language groups appear to be               interpretation is not available by phone or
receiving services at a higher rate than oth-   is provided more easily in person);
ers? If disparities are evident, consider

20 Data  on language spoken at home can be located for an area as small as a block group
   by clicking on Summary File 3 from the U.S. Census Bureau home page,, clicking on Access to all Tables and Maps in American FactFinder,
   selecting Enter a Table Number, entering table QT-P16, and selecting the desired geo-
   graphic area.
21 Contact information for regional census staff is available at
   www/. State data centers have additional information, including customized data. See

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Serving Language-Minority Clients

                                I    areas of law in which the program          have any policies regarding identifying and
                                provides services (Specific language or         tracking a client’s primary language, pro-
                                nationality groups may encounter partic-        viding language services, using staff mem-
                                ular legal problems. For example, fraud-        bers for language services, and encourag-
                                ulent or incompetent preparers of tax           ing or permitting clients to provide their
                                returns seem to appear more frequently in       own interpreters? Policies aside, what prac-
                                immigrant communities. Community Legal          tices do staff members actually follow? Are
                                Services has encountered an apparently          language-access matters the responsibility
                                unusual number of Russian-speaking              of any specific staff member?
                                immigrants with trade school disputes.                The program should comprehen-
                                Become familiar with the particular legal       sively evaluate its delivery of services to
                                needs of different language groups.             limited-English-proficient clients. Review
                                Consider developing expertise in immi-          all stages and aspects of client services—
                                gration law and advocating language             including intake, referral, advice, repre-
                                access at other agencies with which lim-        sentation, advocacy, community educa-
                                ited-English-proficient clients interact);      tion, and outreach—to identify potential
                                I    type of assistance offered (How is the
                                decision made to offer a client full repre-     III. Policy
                                sentation, limited service, referral, or        After assessing client needs, existing pro-
                                advice only? Some restricted levels of ser-     gram resources, and the state of program
                                vice may be of little value to a client         practices, a legal services program must
                                unable to send a letter, read a response,       establish policies to promote meaningful
                                or file an application in English. Referrals    access for limited-English-proficient clients.
                                to linguistically inaccessible pro bono pro-    The program policy can begin with a gen-
                                grams may be of little value. Consider          eral rule, for example, “The program deliv-
                                being more flexible in determining what         ers quality legal services to clients in their
                                type of help to offer clients whose English     primary language.” Through bilingual
                                proficiency is limited. Offering the same       staffing or free, competent language assis-
                                services to different groups can have an        tance to clients, the policy should make
                                unintended discriminatory impact); and          clear that the program, not the client, is
                                I    community partnerships (Forge rela-        responsible for eliminating language bar-
                                tionships with community organizations,         riers. Services for limited-English-proficient
                                including those based on ethnicity; grass-      clients should not be limited, unreason-
                                roots groups; religious organizations; and      ably delayed, or otherwise inferior to the
                                service providers that work closely with        services that other clients receive.
                                immigrant and other limited-English-pro-              The program should craft a compre-
                                ficient communities).                           hensive written policy, distribute it to all
                                                                                staff members, and make it available to the
                                Completion of this initial assessment           public. However, before thinking about
                                should inform a program’s knowledge of          how to flesh out the policy, the program
                                the languages in which it must develop          must assemble the components needed to
                                capacity and the extent to which barriers       deliver services in other languages.
                                may be blocking access to its services.
                                                                                A. Gathering Language Resources
                                B. Program Resources and Practices                   The essential element for a language
                                     A program must assess the resources        access program is creating a network of
                                that it has to serve limited-English-profi-     staff members and services to interpret
                                cient clients, its current policies and prac-   and translate for a wide range of com-
                                tices, and language barriers to its services.   munities with limited English proficiency.
                                Which staff members are proficient in a         Although special attention must be given
                                second language? Are arrangements in            to the language groups encountered most
                                place to obtain trained interpreters and        frequently, the program must also have
                                translators for other languages widely spo-     an adequate system for serving less fre-
                                ken in the service area? Does the program       quently encountered language groups

550                                                                  C L E A R I N G H O U S E R E V I E W | MARCH–APRIL 2003
                                                                                             Serving Language-Minority Clients

since all clients are entitled to meaning-      guages that clients speak, hiring new staff
ful access.                                     members with second-language ability
                                                should be a high priority. Diversifying
     1. Bilingual Staff                         staff members based on language skills
     The first element of language ser-         increases the cultural awareness among
vices, especially for high-volume lan-          staff members and enhances the pro-
guages, is built upon in-house bilingual        gram’s ties to a variety of client commu-
staff. Identify these individuals and deter-    nities and organizations.
mine their proficiency levels in both
English and the second language. Con-                2. Outside Contractors
sider a formal assessment of their lan-              As in-person interpreters for lan-
guage capability.22 Compile and circulate       guages that staff members cannot cover
a staff language directory that lists those     adequately and as backup for bilingual
with second-language ability and catego-        staff members, professional outside con-
rizes them according to skill in speaking       tractors are almost certainly indispensable.
and writing. Bilingual staff members can        The program may want alternatively to
function both as case handlers and as           enter into formal arrangements with com-
interpreters or translators when qualified.     munity-based organizations, student
Bilingual case handlers, in particular, are     groups, and volunteers to provide lan-
the best way to serve limited-English-pro-      guage services. Take care, however, not to
ficient clients since the case handlers can     depend on unpaid support from commu-
communicate directly with the client with-      nity organizations, which have their own
out the attendant loss in communication         programs to operate. These organizations
from having even a good interpreter.            can be essential for outreach and referral
Bilingual staff members are also more effi-     but do not expect their staff to function
cient in that they make additional time         as an unpaid adjunct to the legal aid pro-
for interpreting unnecessary.                   gram. Reliance on donated help from com-
     Establish a protocol that addresses the    munity groups may discourage referrals
use of staff members for interpreting and       and thereby undercut outreach. No matter
takes into account their other job duties,      who serves as an interpreter, quality must
training, and skill level. Remember that        be assured. The potential for questionable
bilingual staff members, including native       linguistic or interpreting skills on the part
speakers, need training to function as          of a volunteer interpreter is compounded
interpreters. Programs unable to hire staff     by the delicacy of questioning, criticizing,
members dedicated to language services          or dismissing a volunteer or community
should consider adjusting the compensa-         partner for unsatisfactory work. When a
tion and duties of those who do provide         program pays for services, it more easily
such services so that they are not unfair-      can demand quality work and avoid tak-
ly burdened. The protocol should specify        ing advantage of other agencies.
the order in which staff members should              A telephone interpreter service is an
be called—considering their skill, training,    essential component of a language access
and availability—for language help.             policy. Telephone services can cover a
     Since most programs lack staff mem-        large number of languages and are par-
bers who can cover the array of lan-            ticularly necessary in programs that

22 One   way to accomplish this would be to have someone who is clearly very fluent in a
   second language observe a simulated interview in which the staff member acts as an
   interpreter; the observer should assess the staff member’s vocabulary, speed, accuracy,
   pronunciation, and diction, in both languages. Similarly the staff member can be asked
   to translate documents so that the staff member’s translation skills can be assessed.
   Alternatively an outside company or educational institution under contract may test the
   staff member’s written and oral skills. A certification examination may be available to
   test skills in the language in question. Note, however, that court certification may be too
   high a standard. Such examinations require simultaneous interpretation, which is
   beyond the capacity of even most comfortably bilingual people.

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                                                                                    a client already uncomfortable discussing
                 A Teenager as Family Translator                                    personal problems with a lawyer.
       I am 16 years old, and my family moved to the United States from                   3. Translation
  China about nine years ago. I speak Cantonese at home because my
  parents still have a lot of difficulty speaking English. I am the oldest                Translation of written documents (to
  child in my family, which means my family expected me to help                     be distinguished from interpretation,
  them translate. Translating is a lot of pressure! Translating from one            which refers to oral communication) rais-
  language to another is very different and difficult. Every time when              es some separate issues. Generally docu-
  I’m translating for my parents I’m afraid I will translate something              ments should be translated for clients with
  wrong, and that my mistakes will hurt my family. . . .                            limited English proficiency so that the
       Not only is translating hard, but it also causes a lot of tension            clients have the opportunity to read and
  between me and my parents. My parents do not like to rely on me,                  understand forms, correspondence, and
  and they know that I am tired of translating for them. Recently my                pleadings just as English-speaking clients
  father and I argued because I didn’t want to miss school to go to the             have. But because translation is not only
  DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] to help him get his California ID              quite expensive but also, in some situa-
  renewed. And when I tell my parents that I don’t know how to trans-               tions, of limited benefit, consider when it
  late something, they get upset. Sometimes, I don’t think they trust me.           may be unnecessary. Sight translation, in
       Grace Zeng, Testimony Before the California Senate Judiciary                 which a qualified interpreter reads a doc-
  Committee and the Assembly Select Committee on Language and                       ument and tells the client what it says,
  Access to Government Services, Feb. 26, 2002.                                     may in some instances be a reasonable
                                                                                    alternative to written translation.
  [Source: Chinese for Affirmative Action, San Francisco, Cal.]                           Programs should review their forms,
                                                                                    community education materials, and other
                                                                                    documents to determine which should
                                                                                    have priority for translation (e.g., those
                                       depend on telephone intake systems or        that the client will sign or that are used to
                                       that encounter a wide range of languages.    obtain the client’s consent or explain the
                                       Good telephone services can have an          client’s rights). Programs should keep a
                                       interpreter of most languages on the         supply of these translated forms in lan-
                                       phone in less than a minute. They can        guages that are regularly encountered.
                                       also identify a client’s language and the          Select translators with the same care as
                                       general nature of the client’s need until    interpreters but understand that different
                                       an in-person interpreter can be obtained.    skills are needed. For example, bilingual
                                       They are likely to be more cost-effective    staff members may have the language skills
                                       for day-to-day communication with clients    needed to interpret competently yet lack
                                       since they usually charge by the minute.     the more formal educational background
                                       In-person interpreters, whose rates are      (in either English or the foreign language)
                                       likely to be hourly and to include a min-    typically needed to translate competently.
                                       imum charge and travel, may be more          Because translation involves written com-
                                       economical for long discussions.             munication without opportunity for clari-
                                            Telephone interpreters should not be    fication, it requires a higher level of preci-
                                       the only source of interpreters, for they    sion in both content and grammar.
                                       do have drawbacks. Because these inter-      (Conversely interpretation requires a high-
                                       preters are not physically present, they     er level of conversational skill.)
                                       are unable to observe visual cues that may         To assess accuracy, have a second
                                       signal concern or misunderstanding. Much     translator review the work of a primary
                                       legal representation is based on docu-       translator from time to time. As with writ-
                                       ments, which a telephone interpreter can-    ten communication in English, the trans-
                                       not view. The quality of voice transmis-     lator, as well as the staff member who
                                       sions over a speakerphone usually makes      composes the writing to be translated,
                                       comprehension more of a challenge at         must be conscious of the client’s literacy
                                       both ends of the conversation. And, of       level in the client’s primary language so
                                       course, the disembodied voice is imper-      that written communication occurs at an
                                       sonal and may contribute to the unease of    appropriate level.

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                                                                                               Serving Language-Minority Clients

     Look into upgrading word process-           always include language information so
ing software. Keyboards, dictionaries, and       that the need for language services is evi-
grammar checkers in other languages can          dent when a file moves from one staff
simplify translation. However, translation       member to another.
software that automatically translates from           Consider carefully who should pro-
one language to another should be used,          vide interpretation services. Many programs
if at all, only for initial drafts of transla-   are deficient in this area. As a general rule,
tions. Since words have multiple possible        trained professionals must be used; they
meanings depending on context, transla-          must, of course, be fluent in the second
tion software cannot be relied upon to           language as well as in English, and fluen-
translate accurately; a translator’s review      cy in two languages at the level needed
is also necessary.                               for legal interpreting is rare. Dual fluency
                                                 by itself is not sufficient, however; a qual-
B. Policy Components                             ified interpreter must also be trained in the
     Clearly post, and publicize through         various modes and proper uses of inter-
flyers and other means, the program’s pol-       pretation (e.g., consecutive, simultaneous,
icy to provide bilingual help or free inter-     and sight translation) and in the various
preting and translating services, and inform     roles assumed by interpreters (e.g., con-
clients of the policy when they contact the      duit, clarifier, cultural broker) as well as
program initially. In waiting rooms, dis-        the ethical standards governing inter-
play multilingual posters informing clients      preters.24 Furthermore, an interpreter
that free interpreting services are available.   should have the requisite training and
Supply intake and reception staff mem-           experience to function as a legal inter-
bers with language identification cards that     preter, so that she is familiar with the court
the staff can give to non-English-speaking       system, stages of litigation, and legal jargon.
clients; these cards, in numerous lan-           Optimally the interpreter should be certi-
guages, instruct clients to point to the lan-    fied as a legal or court interpreter. How-
guage that they speak so that an inter-          ever, many states have not yet developed
preter can be called.23                          certification standards and procedures, and
     Maintaining records and enhancing           those with such standards and procedures
the program’s ability to gather data on          cover few languages. Even if certification
clients’ primary languages is important.         as a court or legal interpreter is unavail-
Intake forms should be formatted to              able, other forms of certification may be
record the primary language of clients           available in a particular jurisdiction.
who need language services. To be use-                A client’s relatives and friends gener-
ful, the data field that identifies the pri-     ally should not be permitted to function
mary language should be mandatory; the           as interpreters. They seldom have any
software should not default to English.          training and may not be proficient in both
The database should offer a full range of        languages. The use of friends and family
languages from which to select. If the           extends past bad habits of making the
choices are too limited (English, Spanish,       client, rather than the program, responsi-
and other), reports that the database gen-       ble for overcoming language barriers.
erates will be unable to distinguish among       Another reason for caution is that the
non-Spanish-speaking clients of limited          client and a relative may have conflicting
English proficiency or to yield data on the      interests that are not readily apparent. The
range of languages that clients speak.           client’s right to privacy is also undermined
Computer and paper client files must             when relatives or friends interpret. Any

23 A government version of one format for a language identification card, as well as a host
   of other resources and information, is available at
24 A model ethical code for court interpreters can be found in WILLIAM E. HEWITT, NAT’L CTR.
   STATE COURTS 199–210 (1995).

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Serving Language-Minority Clients

                                policy must clearly forbid staff from re-        lem-free. Some language communities are
                                quiring or encouraging clients to procure        so small that a client may reasonably fear
                                their own interpreters.                          that the professional interpreter is some-
                                      All the reasons not to use a client’s      one who knows the client or the client’s
                                friends and relatives for interpreting are       family, and this can cause great embar-
                                more pronounced when applied to the              rassment. The client may have had bad
                                client’s minor children. Using minor chil-       experiences with poorly trained inter-
                                dren to interpret is a notoriously poor          preters. Or the client may prefer the com-
                                practice that is a clear sign of a program’s     fort of using a friend or relative to inter-
                                lack of commitment to linguistic accessi-        pret and at the same time to help handle
                                bility. Young children are likely to be defi-    a difficult situation.
                                cient in language skills, often in both lan-           A program’s policy should be cog-
                                guages. They often miss school to act as         nizant of why clients may be reluctant to
                                interpreters. They are least likely to under-    use a professional interpreter and should
                                stand the legal system and most likely to        address these concerns with clients. How-
                                feel qualified to answer for the client rather   ever, the client should not always have
                                than simply be a neutral intermediary.           the final word on whether an interpreter
                                Relying on children may undermine fam-           is used. Case handlers must be assured
                                ily structure as well as burden the child        that they have an accurate understand-
                                psychologically. Programs should strong-         ing of what the client is saying and that
                                ly discourage, if not outright prohibit, the     the client has an accurate understanding
                                use of minor children as interpreters.           of what the case handler is saying. Failure
                                      Carefully consider how to determine        to use a professional interpreter may
                                when an interpreter is needed. The easy          make communication unreliable to the
                                case is when staff members are clearly           extent that the program cannot assist the
                                unable to communicate with a client due          client in a way consistent with profes-
                                to a language barrier. However, even a           sional standards. For this reason, program
                                client who is able to answer questions           staff must be free to call in an interpreter
                                sufficiently to fill out an intake form may      when help is needed to understand the
                                still need an interpreter, particularly for      client, even if the client appears to under-
                                more in-depth communications. Consider           stand the staff and states that an inter-
                                the needs and desires of both the client         preter is unnecessary.
                                and the staff member, and when in doubt,               A comprehensive policy should also
                                use an interpreter.                              deal with the distribution of cases involv-
                                      Clients often decline language ser-        ing limited-English-proficient clients. Cases
                                vices for the wrong reasons. Some refrain        in which an interpreter is used typically
                                from requesting an interpreter so as not to      require three times as much time for any
                                impose a burden on the program, while            tasks involving communication with the
                                others may take pride in how much                client. Even when the case handler is
                                English they have learned without realiz-        bilingual, the case takes more time be-
                                ing their deficiencies. Intake staff and         cause of the need for translation work
                                receptionists must be trained to notify          and for interpreting whenever others are
                                clients of the availability of free language     involved. Immigrant clients also are more
                                services and never to give the impression        likely to lack a basic understanding of the
                                that communicating effectively with staff        U.S. legal system and their options with-
                                members is the clients’ responsibility.          in it. Another reason that higher levels of
                                Clients should not decline services for fear     service may be required is that adequately
                                of having to pay or of facing delay in           serving clients with limited English profi-
                                receiving help. They should also under-          ciency on an advice-only or other limited-
                                stand that interpreters are bound by rules       service basis is more difficult. For these
                                of confidentiality.                              reasons, case handlers should receive
                                      This not to say that use of “profes-       extra credit for assisting limited-English-
                                sional” interpreters is necessarily prob-        proficient clients through interpreters, and

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                                                                                                Serving Language-Minority Clients

bilingual staff should receive similar ap-        a necessity for bilingual staff members
propriate adjustments.                            who have any role to play as interpreters.
     All of the program’s policies and pro-       And training on the use of interpreters is
cedures on language access should be writ-        needed for all staff members who may
ten and distributed to all staff members.         have occasion to work with interpreters.
Note that many other issues arise in set-         The methods used by trained interpreters
ting language access policies. Ideas about        are not difficult to understand, but nei-
policy concerns and existing standards can        ther are they obvious or comfortable for
be found in the guidance published by             the untrained. For example, interpreters
federal departments and agencies.25               expect to function simply as a conduit
                                                  between two parties to a conversation,
IV. Staff Training                                not to participate in a three-way conver-
Staff training is essential for successful        sation. They speak in the same person as
implementation of a language access pro-          the speaker: “I would like to get child
gram for a number of reasons. The lan-            support” rather than “she says she would
guage policy is likely to be a new con-           like to get child support.”26 Trained staff
cept to staff members, so that an initial         members speak directly to the client rather
round of training is necessary to explain         than to the interpreter, while the untrained
the policy and to emphasize its impor-            tend to converse with the interpreter and
tance. Training is an opportunity to dis-         treat the client as the object of discussion.
cuss the policy’s rationale and to build          Untrained bilingual staff members who
staff support for its implementation.             act as interpreters, especially those accus-
Current staff members may need to be              tomed to interviewing clients on their
pushed to change habitual and no longer           own, may be having side conversations
acceptable ways of doing business. On-            with the client to help ascertain the facts
going training should be planned for              and be omitting information or questions
some time to assure uniform under-                of importance.
standing and application of policy and to              Training in working with interpreters
allow the staff to discuss the policy’s           is particularly important because in many
strengths and weaknesses.                         jurisdictions and in certain languages the
      One reason to formalize a language          interpreter’s competence cannot be
policy is to facilitate training. Staff mem-      assumed. Programs should strive to rely
bers need to read the policy as well as           upon in-house, language-qualified staff
hear about it and discuss it. They also           and professional outside interpreters
need to refer back to it later when issues        rather than family and volunteers. But, in
arise. Consider creating a highly visible         practice, “professional” may mean little
file folder that contains the policy, the staff   more than “paid.” Some individual inter-
language directory, instructions for obtain-      preters, as well as personnel sent by inter-
ing in-house and outside language sup-            pretation and translation services, may not
port, a language identification card, and         be fully fluent in English or in the second
tips on how to work with an interpreter.          language. Or they may have adequate lan-
      Training on how to work with inter-         guage skills but lack training in interpret-
preters is essential. Interpreter training is     ing or translating methods and familiari-

25 See, e.g., Department of Justice Final Guidance to Federal Financial Assistance Recipients
   Regarding Title VI Prohibition Against National Origin Discrimination Affecting Limited
   English Proficient Persons and Language Assistance Self-Assessment and Planning Tool,
26 Eliciting a factual narrative from a client with limited English proficiency can become
   very confusing when such conventions are not followed, as distinguishing the client’s
   statements from her reference to a hearsay statement from a third party is difficult: “She
   said men never take care of their children.” Trained interpreters refer to themselves in
   the third person to distinguish the interpreter’s statement from the speaker’s: “The inter-
   preter would like to interject that the client asked the interpreter if the client could trust
   a lawyer.”

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Serving Language-Minority Clients

                                ty with ethical standards. Staff members       guage-appropriate services are being
                                who are trained in what high-quality inter-    delivered.
                                preting entails can recognize poor inter-
                                                                               I    Set up your client grievance system so
                                pretation, even when they do not under-
                                                                               that clients can complain about language
                                stand the language.
                                                                               problems, and the staff members respon-
                                V. Monitoring                                  sible for monitoring language access will
                                                                               receive these complaints.
                                Once a policy is drafted, resources are in
                                place, and staff members are trained, the           Monitoring should address the over-
                                program should monitor itself to assure        all question of whether specific language-
                                compliance with the policy and to con-         minority communities are not seeking help
                                tinue efforts to improve services to limit-    from the program. If a significant dispari-
                                ed-English-proficient clients. One or more     ty continues between the low-income
                                staff members should be assigned over-         population, broken down by language,
                                sight responsibility. Monitoring can take      and the makeup of the clients who seek
                                various forms; several suggestions follow.     service, targeted outreach may be neces-
                                     With intake forms modified to code        sary to open the door to groups that are
                                for primary language, track service deliv-     not being served and to mitigate historic
                                ery to clients, broken down by language,       inequities in service delivery. Forge com-
                                including changes in service over time,        munity partnerships by meeting with eth-
                                comparison among different offices or          nic associations, grass-roots groups, reli-
                                units, and the like. This type of analysis     gious organizations, and service providers
                                reveals information such as which units        who work closely with language-minori-
                                are serving large numbers of limited-          ty communities. Introduce and promote
                                English-proficient clients, which are reach-   your program’s services and express the
                                ing particular language groups, and which      program’s particular interest in improving
                                are doing well with outreach. The data         and expanding its work with limited-
                                can also show where the policy is not          English-proficient clients. Consider adver-
                                being followed, which offices or units         tising or writing a column in ethnic news-
                                need to undertake more effort to break         papers and searching out opportunities
                                down barriers, and where program               for appearing on ethnic radio and televi-
                                resources should be directed. Also:            sion programs. Set up new community
                                                                               education programs aimed at limited-
                                I   Consider creating a time-keeping sys-
                                                                               English-proficient clients and conducted
                                tem code for staff time spent on inter-
                                                                               in their language. Consider establishing
                                preting or translating duties. Gathering
                                                                               new intake sites or systems to reach cer-
                                such data may show where resources are
                                                                               tain groups.
                                                                                    Monitoring must be ongoing and
                                I    Monitor the use of contracted lan-        cyclic. Programs should revisit questions
                                guage services to see which languages          raised during the initial assessment, such
                                are being used, which offices or units are     as whether particular methods of deliver-
                                using services, and whether services are       ing service, case selection, or priority areas
                                being used properly (e.g., use of tele-        of practice may cause language-based
                                phone interpreters for long conversations      inequities. The monitoring function
                                or relying on outside help when in-house       should include an annual review and revi-
                                staff members are available may be inap-       sion of policy.
                                propriate).                                         One or more individuals should be
                                                                               designated to be responsible for language
                                I   Observe whether translation services
                                                                               access. Assessing language needs, estab-
                                are being provided in tandem with inter-
                                                                               lishing policy, training staff, and moni-
                                preting services, as would normally be
                                                                               toring implementation of the policy
                                                                               require a significant amount of staff time
                                I   Solicit input from clients and client      and resources over an extended period.
                                organizations to help assess whether lan-      With many staff overburdened, manage-

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                                                                                              Serving Language-Minority Clients

ment must carve out time for the desig-           tural differences can inhibit communica-
nated staff to get the job done.                  tion or working relationships. However,
                                                  treatises are not necessary to confirm that
VI. Conclusion                                    many programs need improvement in this
In this article I have offered a mere start-      area or to guide those programs deter-
ing point for legal aid programs under-           mined to deliver services in a more equi-
taking a serious effort to make themselves        table manner.
accessible to clients with limited English             Once programs begin to break down
skills. I intended to introduce legal aid         language barriers to service, more work
programs to a basic approach that we at           lies ahead. We need to develop skills and
Community Legal Services found useful,            capacity to work effectively with clients of
together with just enough explanation to          diverse backgrounds. Cultural differences
convey a minimal understanding of some            can impede delivery of quality legal ser-
of the issues that are likely to arise. In the    vices as much as language. Bridging cul-
interest of brevity, I omitted some impor-        tural and linguistic differences between
tant issues and mentioned others only in          programs and clients should be a priori-
passing. For example, entire books have           ty for all of us.27
been written on the ways in which cul-

Author’s Acknowledgments
I thank my colleague Jonathan Blazer for his suggestions and editorial assistance and
Sandor Aguilar, a college intern, for his research assistance. The Samuel S. Fels Fund pro-
vided financial support for the preparation of this article.

27 A   shorter version of this article appears in MIE Journal (Spring 2003).

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