In order for US businesses to communicate effectively with all of their employees and consumers, they must first have a thorough understanding of the current language diversity in the United States.
There are more than 300 languages which are relatively common in the US, according to the 2011 American Community Survey. You can see evidence of this diversity in everything from the bilingual signs posted in our grocery stores and shopping malls to the multilingual makeup of the US workforce.
Language Diversity in the United States
According to recent Census Bureau data, as of 2015, 64.7 million US residents speak a language other than English at home. That equates to more than one in five people speaking a foreign language, or more than 21 percent of US households. And of those households, 40 percent claimed to speak English “less than very well.”
Moreover, non-English-speaking households are comprised of more than just Spanish speakers. Outside of Spanish, as illustrated in the table below, other languages spoken by over a million residents include Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, French, Arabic and Korean.
|Non-English, Non-Spanish Languages Spoken at Home in U.S.||% Increase in Speakers, 2010-2015
|| Number of Speakers 5+ Years of Age, 2015
|Other Indo-European Languages||French||-4%||1,266,366|
|Asian and Pacific Island Languages||Chinese||19%||3,333,588|
Within each language group, there is still more complexity introduced by dialects. This is evident not only among Chinese-speakers, but among Spanish-speakers as well.
The Disproportionate Distribution of Non-English Languages in the US
You don’t have to cross an international boundary to be confronted with major issues of communicating with non-English speakers.
Regional concentrations of specific language groups can create linguistic challenges for US business owners. For example, it’s conventional wisdom that Polish is a major language of the Chicago area. In fact, as of the 2000 Census, approximately 7.3 percent of the population in and around Chicago used Polish as a primary language.
And driving through Aroostook County, Maine, you’re far more likely to encounter a French speaker than a Spanish speaker: approximately 18.3 percent of the county’s inhabitants speak French, according to 2010 Census data.
Finally, consider Wayne County, Michigan, where the Arabic-speaking population (3.25 percent) is higher than anywhere else in the US. The city of Dearborn in particular has a large Arab American population; as of the 2000 US Census they accounted for 30 percent.
What Does This Mean for US Businesses?
As a US business owner, what does this mean to you? The impact of language diversity on your company can be broken down into two main categories:
1) Statutory Requirements for Interpreting and Translation
It is good business (and often the law) to provide interpreting and translation services to employees who do not speak English as a first language.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that government agencies which receive federal funds are not to discriminate based on the ground of race, color or national origin. Many other statutes regarding Limited English Proficient (LEP) persons are derived from Title VI. In effect, this creates a liability for a company which does not level the playing field for non-English speakers.
Moreover, recent legislation, including the new requirements under HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and the Affordable Care Act make it incumbent upon a corporation to provide access to professional interpreting and translation services for their employees.
State and local statutes further put a company at risk where it relies on informal mechanisms for communication or English-only dissemination of documents.
2) Non-Statutory Requirements for Interpreting and Translation
Beyond legal requirements, it just makes sense to facilitate good communication with non-English speakers within your company and your community.
Internally, whether it’s to train a new employee; disseminate Human Resources and/or benefits information; or to create a multilingual safety manual that all workers can understand, professional interpreting and written translation can save substantial money.
At the very least, training in a person’s native language will reduce the risk of accidents and costly errors. Moreover, there have been numerous studies which demonstrate that professional interpreting can improve health problems, reduce workers’ compensation claims and even reduce fatalities.
The same logic applies to communicating with the general population. Whether you are recruiting new employees or marketing to a non-English speaking community, enhanced language skills can pay a big dividend.
Why Professional Language Services?
Whether you need to conduct a company-wide training seminar, give a performance review or distribute a quick memo regarding a new policy, it is vital that you are understood completely.
Relying on family members – or even bilingual employees – substantially increases the risk to the corporation. Not only is miscommunication possible, but also, under the new HIPAA guidelines, the probability of PPI (Personal Protected Information) being disclosed rises substantially.
Fortunately, there are many options for improving communication in the workplace. For example, telephonic interpreting, available 24/7/365, can facilitate communication when more sophisticated techniques, such as onsite interpreting and professional translation, are not available.
In an increasingly diverse United States, there’s no excuse for failing to secure professional interpreting and translation.