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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 27, 2006

Bills seek to break language barrier

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Amy Mounthongdy Hardin, left, and Doungchit Hoang, interpreters at Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services, consult an English-Lao medical glossary, one of a number of cross-cultural references the staff uses to help clients who don’t speak English.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Senate Bill 2914 would require state and county agencies, as well as state-funded programs, to develop plans that provide oral language services (interpreters) and translation of vital documents. It would also establish an office of language access and allow public officials, state and county agencies, and state-funded programs to be sued for not complying.

See similar bills: HB2778, HB2779

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According to sample data collected by the 2000 Census, an estimated 302,125 Hawai'i residents age 5 and older, just over one-fourth of the population, speak a language other than English at home.

Of those, about 50,425 people speak English "not well" while about 5,995 people speak English "not at all." Among the top languages spoken by people who speak no English:

Language People who Percent of all residents

speak no English who speak that language

Chinese 2,310 7.9

Other Pacific

Island languages 1,105 1.2

Korean 805 4.4

Japanese 550 1.0

Vietnamese 550 6.7

Tagalog 430 0.7

Spanish or

Spanish Creole 100 0.5

Source: 2000 U.S. Census

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People in Hawai'i who don't speak English run into persistent roadblocks when they deal with government agencies, according to immigrant rights advocate Patricia McManaman.

After reporting abuse by her boyfriend, a woman who speaks no English is instead placed in a psychiatric ward and her child is put in protective custody. A man with limited English skills has a difficult time explaining his symptoms to paramedics at the scene of a traffic accident. A woman applying for welfare is turned away and told to come back with her own interpreter. A man who knows no English is ordered by a judge to attend a driver's education class — offered only in English.

"Not a day goes by in the state of Hawai'i that somebody's right to translation or interpretation is not violated," said McManaman, chief executive officer of Na Loio — the Immigrant Rights and Public Interest Legal Center.

Several bills moving through the Legislature seek to address the situation by requiring state and county agencies, as well as groups receiving state funding, to provide language services to those with limited English skills or be in violation of civil rights.

Those bills would require that agencies provide not only oral language services such as interpreters, but also that vital documents, signage and other written forms be translated into different languages.

Advocates for immigrants and others not proficient in English say a language access bill is badly needed in Hawai'i, noting that about 17 percent of the state's residents are born outside the United States and 27 percent speak a language other than English at home. They also note that language-accessible services are guaranteed for all federally funded programs under Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 and reaffirmed by a 2000 executive order signed by President Bill Clinton, and that state and county agencies risk losing their federal funding if they don't comply.

But officials with several state agencies said while they support increased language access, the bills now being discussed by lawmakers are too drastic and may pose an undue burden, especially on smaller agencies or state-funded providers. They are also opposed to any provision that would, in essence, expose the state to civil liability for not providing language access.

Senate Bill 2914, among the more comprehensive of the language access bills still alive this session, calls for:

  • State and county agencies, as well as state-funded programs, to develop plans that provide oral language services and translated vital documents — including written notices, tests, legal contracts and complaint forms — to those not proficient in English. The vital document translations would need to be provided for any language spoken by 3 percent of the population or 500 individuals, whichever is less.

  • Agencies to post multilingual signs in their offices informing the public that free language assistance services are available to them.

  • Establishing a language access office and director that would provide oversight, technical assistance and coordination to state and county agencies. The office would be assisted by a language access council.

  • Allowing the state Civil Rights Commission to process complaints and bring actions against state or county agencies found to be denying services based on limited or no proficiency in English.

  • Allowing public officials, state and county agencies, and state-funded programs to be sued for monetary damages for not complying with language access laws.


    Among the biggest supporters of a language access bill are those with the Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Health Center. The center, which receives state funding and would therefore be required to follow the mandates of a language access bill, is already providing language services.

    Dr. David Derauf, executive director of the center, said more than 60 percent of his staff is bilingual and can help speakers of more than 20 languages or dialects.

    Given that at least 70 percent of his clientele speaks a language other than English at home, Derauf said, "creating access to healthcare for less-English-proficient clients is not only the best way, it is the only way that (Kokua Kalihi Valley) can fully or adequately meet the needs of the Kalihi Valley residents."

    Emmy Nakasu Davison, who coordinates the Cross Cultural Bridges Program at Kokua Kalihi Valley, conducts 40-hour training sessions for medical interpreters, as well as a "Cultural competency and working with interpreters" workshop for healthcare providers and students at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa's John A. Burns School of Medicine.

    The program also holds community health education sessions in Samoan, Chuukese and Filipino languages, Davison said.

    Yuk Pang Law, owner of Hawaii Immigrant Services, like McManaman, offers horror stories from non-English speakers. One woman could not communicate to hospital staff that her dentures had been removed prior to surgery and that she could not eat solid food without them. Later, the hospital had trouble looking for the dentures, she said.

    Law said she's not even sure if many people not proficient in English and are arrested fully understand their Miranda rights as they are being read by police. "I don't think they even know about the right to make a phone call," she said.


    Several state and city agencies contacted by The Advertiser say they are attempting to meet language access needs.

    Michelle Yu, a Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman, said if no one can be found to help police with translation, they will call a "language line" service set up by a telephone company service that attempts to find translators to help.

    At HPD dispatch, efforts are made to relay 911 calls from people speaking a foreign language to staffers who can speak the same language before turning to the language line.

    Patty Dukes, head of the city's Emergency Medical Services Division, said city paramedics will try to talk to family members or neighbors who may speak the language of a patient. Recently, paramedics were given medical handbooks with questions written out "in every conceivable language" that they can use with patients.

    Dukes said "an ability to play charades" has also been useful to paramedics. "We tap on the their chest, and they'll nod," she said. And beyond that, paramedics will, like HPD, use a language line, Dukes said.

    For the most part, what's in place works, she said, adding "it does get challenging sometimes when we can't figure out what's wrong."

    Gerald Ohta, affirmative action officer at the state Department of Health, said how the agency deals with non-English-proficient clients varies depending on the program or service.

    Some may try to seek translators within their offices and, barring that, staffers may try to obtain the services of an outside interpretive services provider, Ohta said. Some programs, including some based out of the Lanakila Health Center, have bilingual health aides and there are some health education programs geared specifically toward those who speak certain foreign languages, he said.

    The department has also begun to issue information sheets in different languages, Ohta said.

    Debi Tulang-De Silva, project director for the Office on Equality and Access to the Courts, said all criminal defendants, witnesses and civil defendants are entitled to registered interpreters when it is deemed appropriate by a judge. Currently, there are 282 interpreters registered with the court who speak 39 different languages or dialects.

    The Judiciary has also embarked on a project that will translate various legal forms into different languages, TulangDe Silva said.


    At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee Friday, representatives from several state agencies said while they support the intent of language access, they worry that what's proposed in Senate Bill 2914 is draconian.

    Nelson Befitel, director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said his agency opposes the provision allowing public officials, government agencies and state-funded programs to be sued for monetary damages for not complying with the proposed language access law.

    "This bill also paints a broad brush on every state agency whether you're large or small," Befitel said. "It doesn't take into account your resources," Befitel said. Federal guidelines, he said, take into account whether providing language access would pose an undue burden on an agency.

    Several agencies submitted testimony requesting additional money to pay for the staffing to meet the requirements.

    Deputy Attorney General Gerard Lau, in written testimony, said the implementation of the program also could be problematic.

    "How this bill should be administered or enforced is ... unclear," he said, noting that it appears to give enforcement authority to a newly created language access director and the Civil Rights Commission.


    Sen. Ron Menor, D-17th (Mililani, Waipi'o), who introduced Senate Bill 2914, said he recognizes that there are some concerns about the financial implications on agencies.

    But he noted that the bill only requires each agency a deadline to submit a plan for compliance.

    "Given the cost implications, I don't think this is the sort of bill that can be implemented overnight," Menor said. "It's going to require giving the agencies some time to develop a transition time during which they can phase-in improved services to immigrant populations over a period of time."

    Bill Hoshijo, executive director of the Civil Rights Commission, said it's been more than four decades since the Civil Rights Act was passed and state governments have been given ample time to comply.

    The tough enforcement section of the bill, which Befitel raised concerns about, is therefore critical. "What will it take the state to move forward and meet its civil rights obligations to provide that access?" Hoshijo said.

    "I do think if you leave it up to every separate agency, program, division or department to come up with its own plan, it's not going to happen."

    Na Loio's McManaman said language access is a matter of ensuring the civil rights of a segment of a population and should not be stifled because of cost concerns.

    "In the '50s and early '60s, no one asked how much it was going to cost to desegregate our schools," McManaman said.

    Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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