Arizona: Lost in Translation

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jan 17 13:45:08 UTC 2007

Lost in Translation

January 27, 2007  By Paul W. Taylor

Nothing animates capital campuses like the beginning of a new legislative
session. The wooden desks, marble and brass in the chambers are reminders
of the great traditions of representative government. But the quietly
blinking LEDs of computing and network devices are reminders of how the
public's business now gets done. Downstairs in the bill room, the
legislative hopper begins to fill. The first bills to drop offer a
combination of trial balloons, bills ripped from the headlines, and
perennial pet projects all vying for the early attention of committees as
they gear up for another season of deliberation.

That curious mix often includes "official English" bills. Such measures
have already passed in 28 states. The prime target is Spanish, but as the
name suggests, the measures prohibit government from using any of the
other 320 languages spoken in the United States while conducting official
business -- including providing several types of public services. Buoyed
by their most recent win in Arizona through a citizen's initiative that
passed in the November 2006 general election, English-only activists can
reasonably be expected to set their sights on expanding their reach.

It is helpful to decouple the language or number of languages used in and
by government to conduct official business from the debate over
immigration, something the proponents in the official language movement
tend not to do. Indeed, language use -- or more properly, which
language(s) to use in conducting official public business -- has been
caught in the undertow of the more complicated public policy issues
related to what constitutes a reasonable, just and enforceable immigration
policy. All of this may seem a distant concern for these pages, but once
one touches the question of how to develop and deliver multilingual
services online, it naturally and inevitably exposes the public-sector IT
community to the question of whether.

The exposure is not theoretical. With 13 percent of its population
identified as Spanish-speakers, Utah saw an opportunity to extend service
at incremental cost with -- a Spanish version of its
popular, award-winning public service portal. Its launch was delayed ...
nay, almost scuttled ... a year ago when it confronted the official
English crowd. As it has done across the country, a group called "U.S.
English" had ushered a non-English ban bill from the hopper through the
Legislature and onto the governor's desk.

The brightly colored red, white and green Web portal went dark pending a
review of all the content by the Attorney General's office against the one
provision that provided some flexibility. The U.S. English model
legislation included a specific exemption for "actions ... that protect
the public health." As it happened, almost everything on the
Spanish-language site fits under the exemption. So much for the implicit
conspiracy theory that second and third languages were a bureaucratic ploy
to expand public programs -- turns out the bureaucrats were only doing
their jobs by the most efficient means. Utah's Spanish-language Web site
returned to service, but sporting a color scheme that substituted blue for
green to give it a more patriotic hue.  Utah is not alone.

California and Arizona both have official English laws, but these
governments serve populations that are 35 percent and 28 percent
Spanish-speaking, respectively. For its part, California found room under
the exemption to provide searchable access to its online Megan's Law sex
offender registry in a total of 13 languages. Among the minority of states
without official English measures, Pennsylvania makes COMPASS, its online
self-service system for navigating through the process of social services
eligibility and applications, available in a dozen languages. (Absent a
state-level official English measure, the small town of Hazleton, Pa.,
passed one of its own.)

A number of important things are lost with the English-only debate. The
Web is not the sole province of any one language any more than our
communities are. It is a sign of our times that linguistic minorities are
firmly ensconced in the digital majority. Consider, for example, that
two-thirds of Hispanic-American households enjoy Internet access and more
than half are part of the emerging broadband majority. The movement
assumes that speakers of other languages are a net drain on the economy --
tourism, entrepreneurship and intellectual capital be damned. It is a
position more reflective of a flat Earth rather than a flat world to
suggest that denial of public services based on linguistic ability
actually solves anything.

Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

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