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As Louisville’s foreign-born population grows, so does demand for language access services

A glass door next to a wall that features a navy and white poster called "I SPEAK," which has 12 sections with phrases in different languages.
Monica Lakhwani
/
Submitted
An "I Speak" poster at an entrance of Louisville Metro Hall.

For some immigrants or refugees, gaining access to basic services can prove daunting with a language barrier. The issue affects many residents in Louisville, where the city and partners are trying to connect more with residents who aren’t fluent in English.

In 1997, Aida Gary landed in Louisville from Bosnia through Germany as a refugee. She didn’t speak English and needed help navigating basic facilities in the United States.

Gary said she was met with workers juggling an overwhelming case load at the Catholic Charities of Louisville, one of the nonprofits which handles resettlement of refugees in the city.

She knew just three sentences in English: “My name is Aida,” “I am from Bosnia” and “How do you do?” Getting an interpreter who could help her was a long shot.

Whether it's a trip to the doctor, filling out immigration paperwork or accessing benefits, she and many others who make their way to America need English skills.

Gary decided to bank on her ability to learn a new language. She had done that in Germany, where she worked as a Bosnian-German interpreter. She started by picking up an English-Bosnian dictionary with an urge to be self-sufficient..

Six months after her arrival, Gary got her first American job, as an interpreter at Catholic Charities of Louisville, Gary said. She worked there until 2017.

“When I needed to buy a car, I sat down with a dictionary and prepared all the sentences I had to say. I bought a car for $2,000 the next day,” she said.

Gary had limited proficiency with English, which wasn’t her first language so she wasn’t strong in using it to communicate. Like many others, she was confronted with a double whammy: culture shock and a language barrier.

Gary considered herself fortunate to be able to pick up English quickly as an adult. But even with a dictionary, she couldn’t understand all the papers she had to sign to buy the car. She recalled that she had to “trust the process.”

“When I was purchasing that car, a crook could have taken advantage of me. I was lucky it didn't happen, but it could have. So there are other areas of society that language access doesn't cover,” she said.

Now, 26 years later, Gary works at the Office of Language Access at the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts. She’s the person to go to when a person who doesn’t speak English needs an interpreter for a court hearing for any language other than Spanish. She’s also a certified court and medical interpreter for Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian and Montenegrin.

Providing meaningful language access for people with Limited English Proficiency isn’t just an option, it’s a right.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin, The U.S. Supreme Court, which recognized the close link between language and national origin, said in 1974 the Civil Rights Act also bars discrimination based on English proficiency.

A 2022 Louisville ordinance aims to promote meaningful access to city programs and services, public benefits applications, housing assistance, and forms and government notices, regardless of the language a resident speaks.

The implementation of a comprehensive language access framework rests on Monica Lakhwani, who was recently appointed the city’s first Language Access Coordinator at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Lakhwani’s job is to review each city departments’ language access plans, making recommendations and training staff on language access policy.

“I serve as that staff liaison with populations that are speaking languages other than English. So it's my job to make sure that if our demographics are slightly changing, then we need to make sure that we are offering those vital documents in this language,” she said.

According to the city’s language access profile data, the top 12 languages spoken in Louisville other than English are Spanish, Somali, Arabic, Mai Mai, Swahili, French, Kinyarwanda, Vietnamese, Nepali, Telugu, Turkish and Pashto.

U.S. Census data from 2022 analyzed by Lakhwani's team show nearly one in 10 Louisville residents are foreign-born, and nearly 5% of Louisvillians have Limited English Proficiency.

Louisville is one of 11 American cities where there's a demand for “culturally sensitive and language accessible emergency materials," according to a 2020 report by New American Economy, a bipartisan group that does immigration research and advocacy.

Lakhwani said there are language identification tools available at Metro Hall called “I Speak” posters, which the city installed last April. Patrons can point to their language on the poster and a staff member can contact a vendor that offers phone-based interpreter services to help.

Each city department also provides translations of vital documents like applications or notices for each eligible Limited English Proficient language group — which must make up at least 5% of the local LEP population or 1,000 people.

The next step, Lakhwani said, is getting the word out about city services and programs to Louisville’s foreign-born residents.

“Just because they may have their native language or be able to speak it doesn't necessarily mean that they can read it. So a lot of work is going to be through word of mouth to communities,” she said.

As part of the language access implementation plan, Lakhwani said the city would hire local nonprofits to provide interpreting and translation services.

One of the vendors is Catholic Charities of Louisville, which is working closely with the city on implementation.

The nonprofit also offers a program called “Bridging the Gap.” It trains foreign-born residents who speak English to work as professional interpreters employed by the organization.

Alisa Pifine is the program director of language services at Catholic Charities of Louisville. She expects the demand for interpreters and language services to increase in the next 12 to 18 months, as more immigrants and refugees move to Louisville.

Pifine said she’s seen language access get better in medical facilities and other institutions, but says more businesses could voluntarily adopt services.

“I think businesses might be missing opportunities by not reaching out to different segments of the community. There’s a lot more room for inclusion, a lot more room for participation from everyone,” she said.

Back in Aida Gary’s office in Louisville, she’s walking to her garage after a day of scrambling to coordinate an interpreter for a person who speaks French and Lingala, a language from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The previous interpreter dropped out an hour before a case had to be heard.

“I was doing James Bond action here, but with languages,” she said.

Now a U.S. citizen, Gary reflected on how much language access services have changed since she first set foot in the country.

“The change has been dramatic. For 26 years, I and others have been educating interpreters to tell people in their communities that these services exist for them, that Title VI says you have the right to an interpreter. So we’ve all taken on the role of educators for the community,” she said.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.