Eliminating Language Barriers for LEP Individuals: Promising Practices from the Public Sector

by Ted Wang

Jan 1, 2010
While the focus of this report is on eliminating language barriers for limited English proficient (LEP) individuals, any strategy to improve communications with this population must also include English learning and address the shortage of high-quality English as a Second Language (ESL) courses for adults. State-administered ESL programs currently serve only about a million of the estimated 12.4 million LEP adults in the United States who need language instruction. The underfunding of ESL programs means that large numbers of immigrant adults who wish to learn English are unable to enroll in classes or face overcrowded classrooms. For instance, a 2006 national survey of ESL providers found that 57 percent of these programs maintained waiting lists -- ranging from a few weeks to more than three years -- and could not accommodate the high numbers of immigrants interested in learning English. Policy experts and organizations that work with adult English learners have proposed various strategies to increase the availability of high-quality ESL courses, but lack of political support at the national level -- coupled with the current fiscal crisis -- has weakened efforts to help immigrants improve their English skills.
  • Successful language access programs usually include an assessment and planning phase; The first step in developing a language access program is to understand the language needs and related characteristics of LEP populations that are likely to interact with an agency.
  • Successful language access programs usually include detailed implementation plans that address identified language barriers; After completing an initial assessment, an agency should develop an implementation plan that describes its policy for communicating with and serving LEP residents, how it will address the specific challenges identified in the assessment described above; and procedures or protocols that its staff should follow in interacting with LEP individuals.
  • Successful language access programs usually include evaluation; Agencies should formally assess the quality of their language services. For example, they can survey individuals who utilize or provide such services, such as LEP clients, community organizations that interact with newcomers, agency staff, interpreters, and translators. Agencies should also consider assessing whether improved access helps achieve broader goals.
  • Successful language access programs usually include efforts to build support for language access programs both within an agency and from key external sources. Mark Lewis, coordinator for the New York City's Administration for Children's Services' programs for immigrants shares, "a program's effectiveness depends in part on two factors: first, whether an agency can convince its employees that serving English language learners is an important part of their responsibilities, and second, whether there is external support -- from elected officials and the broader community -- for making public services more accessible."
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