Trying to break the language barrier

Bill seeks interpreters for non-English speakers

March 08, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In every county in Maryland, in almost every government agency, residents who don't speak English are applying for health care, for a driver's license, for a protective order - trying to communicate with employees who often can do little more than tell them to come back with a bilingual child or friend.

Yesterday in Annapolis, Latino and Asian activists urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would require state agencies to provide interpreters and to translate their documents into whatever languages are spoken by 3 percent of that agency's clients.

Most legislators agree with the bill's intent, they say, but in a year when the General Assembly wants to cut $400 million from the proposed state budget, some are skeptical that they can afford such a program, even if it is staggered over four years.

On the Senate floor yesterday, lawmakers debated whether passing it without built-in funding made sense. The bill will come before the chamber again today for a preliminary vote.

"They have to understand, how much does it cost not to address this issue," said Angelo Solera, a Latino advocate who also works for the Baltimore health department. "People are taking off from work, going to emergency rooms. The state is paying for that."

That's what Alma Kirby told members of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee at a hearing yesterday on the House of Delegates' version of the bill. Kirby, 25, moved from Mexico to Baltimore in June, and soon discovered she was seriously ill, and needed surgery and chemotherapy. She applied for Medicaid and quickly found herself mired in the bureaucracy.

Kirby speaks English quite well, but she needed language help from her American husband and his family as she wrangled with myriad state and federal agencies.

"I cannot imagine another person that does not speak English at all could survive this," she testified.

The same legislation was introduced last year, but lawmakers weren't convinced it was necessary and asked for a study.

A survey by the University of Maryland's National Foreign Language Center released in December showed that across Maryland, almost all state agencies reported difficulty serving clients who spoke limited English.

The majority of those clients speak Spanish, the survey showed. The next most common languages are Russian and Korean. And the areas most affected were Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George's and Worcester counties.

When asked how they dealt with the language barrier, state workers told researchers, "`We talk slower, we talk louder, we point at the form,'" said Bill Rivers of the Foreign Language Center. "They weren't being sarcastic. They were trying to solve the problem."

Shu-Ping Chan, executive director of the Governor's Office on Asian Pacific American Affairs, says the language barrier also keeps people who qualify for state help from applying.

In addition, he said, crimes often aren't reported because people with limited English think police won't understand them.

"By word of mouth, it gets around the community - that their neighbor's grandmother tried and didn't get anywhere, so they don't even try," he said.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

11 a.m. Senate meets, Senate chamber.

11 a.m. House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

1 p.m. House Environmental Matters Committee, hearing on proposal to establish Wildlife and Inland Fisheries Commission, Room 160, Lowe House Office Building.

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