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Support multilingual community services

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JANUARY 20, 2011 7:10 AM

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Imagine that your child is ill at home, vomiting profusely. It is after-hours at the clinic, so you decide to seek help at a pharmacy. When you get to the pharmacy, however, you are unable to talk to the pharmacist or communicate your specific needs.

The pharmacist isn’t on the phone or helping another customer; he speaks another language. You have some knowledge of the language but not enough to convey, as a frantic parent, the symptoms that your sick child is experiencing.

For many Latinos in Iowa City and the rest of the United States, this is not an anomalous occurrence. In many places, including pharmacies, banks, city facilities, and a child’s school, it is impossible to speak to a person who is fluent in Spanish. While some schools and hospitals provide translators, the nature of American pluralism and changing demographics demands an increased emphasis on bilingual capacity in the public sphere.

A 2009 Census Bureau survey found that 45.7 percent of Spanish-speaking Americans speak English “less than ‘very well.’ ” That amounts to 5.58 percent of all Americans who speak Spanish better than English; even in overwhelmingly white, English-speaking Iowa, these numbers are difficult to ignore.

And the rapidly increasing Latino population means that they will only become more relevant. Iowa’s Latino population is expected to triple by 2040; while this does not necessarily equate to a larger non-Anglophone demographic, it highlights the importance of a multilingual community bolstered by translation and outreach programs.

These programs do not need to be intrusive. Mercy Hospital’s telephone translator service can interpret more than 130 languages into English. “It only takes a few minutes to connect to the service,” Denise Connell, a program coordinator for Mercy, told the Editorial Board.

The Iowa City police has a staff officer with a master’s in Spanish, along with offering basic training in the language and others through the University of Iowa.

“Most of our officers are competent for street-level conversation [in Spanish],” Sgt. Denise Brotherton told the Editorial Board.

Even though a translator service may be available at some city services, it can be difficult for people with minimal English comprehension to learn about or find those services. The Iowa City police, University of Iowa, UI Hospitals and Clinics, Mercy Hospital, City Hall, and many other salient resources do not provide automated messages in Spanish or operators who speak Spanish, making navigation a Herculean task.

Additionally, the Iowa City School District does not have a single Spanish-speaker in the main office and does not offer a translator service. Spanish-speaking parents have few opportunities for communication at grade-school levels, and it’s hardly better at the university.

“People don’t understand that the language barrier and lack of Spanish-language services is a huge burden for University of Iowa students,” Luisa Orticelli told the Editorial Board. Orticelli is a graduate assistant at the UI and the manager of the Latino Native American Cultural Center.

“Students have to be translators for their family members,” Orticelli said. “They have a high burden and have to be parents to their parents. There are not enough public services out there that have the abilities to accommodate Spanish-speakers.”

Orticelli stressed that translators may be needed at any time. Anything from a parent needing to discuss billing issues with the school to someone needing medical advice to a person wishing to address a city councilor requires someone who speaks more than minimal Spanish to keep these societal spheres open to everyone.

In 2002, Gov. Tom Vilsack signed into law a bill that made English the official language of Iowa. While it was a primarily symbolic measure, the symbolism was a double-edged sword: Enshrining English as a unifying language also excluded non-Anglophones from public circles.

Spanish-language services and programs in variegated aspects of daily life can begin to correct this exclusion of the already underserved, ensure that all Americans, regardless of linguistic ability, can interact with peers and institutions, facilitate the integration of immigrants into American life, and further the goals and principles that this country was founded upon. When one disregards nativist platitudes, multilingual services advance the ideal of a democratic society and account for the reality of being a non-native speaker.

“I know a lot of Americans’ responses will be – well they need to learn English,” Orticelli said. “But imagine being a parent, having to raise children, going to work, and then also trying to learn English in your spare time. Americans don’t realize how hard it is.”


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