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David Jung, Noemí Gallardo and Ryan Harris
Permission Requested: David Jung, Noemí Gallardo and Ryan Harris, A Local Official's Guide to Language Access Laws, 10 Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal 31 (Winter 2013) (208 Footnotes)
The rapid growth of immigrant communities is transforming the demography of the United States, perhaps nowhere so much as in California, where almost one third of the country's recent immigrants reside. Language diversity is a prominent feature of this transformation. According to U.S. Census data, more than 200 different languages are spoken at home by California residents.
Many of these Californians are also limited English-proficient, or LEP. A person is considered LEP if she reports that she does not speak English “very well.” The number of U.S. residents who are limited English-proficient has increased substantially in recent decades, consistent with the growth of the U.S. foreign-born population. When English is not spoken well enough to allow the speaker to benefit from government programs and services, language diversity can become a language barrier.
Language barriers can prevent people from fully participating in civic life. People whose proficiency in English is limited may not realize what public services they have access to, may not be able to communicate their point of view at a town hall meeting, or may not understand information an agency wants the public to know. As the U.S. Attorney General has emphasized, “[w]hether in an emergency or in the course of routine business matters, the success of government efforts to effectively communicate with members of the public depends on the widespread and nondiscriminatory availability of accurate, timely, and vital
Language is a barrier to meaningful civic participation for approximately 7.7% of U.S. residents over the age of five. California has the country's largest percentage of non-English-language speakers; in some California legislative districts, most residents have limited English proficiency. A state, like California, with many LEP speakers living within its borders may feel a greater responsibility to provide language access services to its residents.
Enabling people to use their own language when it is feasible helps them access public services. Providing language access increases the opportunities for residents to communicate with their local leaders and public service providers, and protects the flow of information between public agencies and residents, as well as among residents themselves. This access is vital to effective community building. Under some circumstances, local agencies must ensure that LEP residents have access to public benefits and services, as well as an opportunity to participate in public life. This guide explains the laws that require language access.