Bridging the language barrier

Communications Coordinator Sharon Hernandez, in her office in Goshen City Hall, said she wants the community to know local government services are available to everyone, “regardless of whether there’s a language barrier.”

GOSHEN — Local governments are finding ways to welcome non-English speakers into their offices who might have a little trouble asking for help.

Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman recently announced plans to provide better translation help to people who come in to department offices. He said they’ve seen an increase lately in people seeking city services, such as building permits, who are Spanish-only speakers.

He doesn’t believe it indicates a growing non-English population as much as a growing sense of comfort among residents.

“We’re not sure why the increase has happened, but we are seeing that,” he told city council at a July meeting. “I see it as a positive, that we’ve been very welcoming, we’ve been working hard to reach out to all the community and they feel comfortable coming in to the government offices.”

Offices throughout the county, providing services from health care to utilities to law enforcement, encounter non-English-speaking residents on a daily basis. Department heads are finding their own ways to make sure they can serve the whole population.

“If Spanish-only speaking individuals enter local city offices to obtain needed information regarding city services, to report a malfunction in their home or pay a bill, and the city office does not have a way to fully understand the customer’s need, an opportunity to serve with excellence is missed,” said Gilberto Perez Jr., Goshen College dean of students and a supporter of immigrant and Latino issues.

He stressed the importance of local governments meeting language needs. He said they aren’t fully serving their residents otherwise.

“Having employees that are bilingual or having a bilingual line that Spanish-only customers can access allows them to express their need and shows the city’s genuine interest in meeting the customer where they are at,” he said. “It also lets the customer know that their concerns are important and valued.”

On speed dial

In Goshen, Stutsman said they’re looking at long-term options like contracting with a company that offers interpreters for multiple languages by phone. But he said the immediate fix will be to enlist the help of some of the bilingual city employees who’ve been hired in recent years. 

A phone system will be set up in several offices that can contact any of those employees when needed. He said it’s a way to help people without having to pull one employee away from what he’s doing to come interpret every time.

“They can hit one button, it will immediately call all those employees’ phone numbers. The first employee to pick up is the translator,” Stutsman told council at the July 16 meeting. “They’ll be able to decide when they can take the call or not.”

He said Wednesday that nine city employees who are either bilingual or feel comfortable with their Spanish skills have agreed to be part of the phone system. He hopes to have it set up by the end of the week.

Communications Coordinator Sharon Hernandez is one of those employees who agreed to act as interpreter. She’s excited for the opportunity, which is in line with much of what she already does for the city.

“One of the reasons I was brought to the city as the communications coordinator was, the position asked for somebody who preferably was bilingual in English and Spanish. It was something that I came to with a lot of passion,” said Hernandez, whose family moved to Goshen from Puebla, Mexico, in 2007. “It means a lot to me to be able to help part of the community who may not feel necessarily comfortable. They may even speak English, but they may not feel comfortable when it comes to working on a business or their home, their health, the court. Some of the more important things in their life. They may be more comfortable speaking in their mother tongue.”

She hopes other residents might similarly step up and help in emergencies, such as the February 2018 flood that affected much of the city. She said the event created a lot of demand for translation work with a fast turnaround time.

Both Hernandez and Stutsman said they want the hotline to result in more people feeling comfortable with stepping into city offices.

“I’m really excited to know that we can offer those services to show the community we’re open to everyone, regardless of whether there’s a language barrier,” she said.

Stutsman added that he remains committed to the idea despite the pushback he sometimes sees.

“The comments that you hear out there about, ‘This is America, speak English,’ I’ve already received some of that criticism,” he said. “But I am a firm believer that city government is here to serve everybody in this community, and if we know of an issue with our being able to communicate, we will always work to better that.”

Word-of-mouth

In Elkhart, Communications Director Courtney Bearsch said the Building and Code Enforcement Department interacts with non-English speakers regularly, both in the office and in the field. Sometimes the person will bring a translator with them and sometimes a Spanish-speaking employee is asked to help.

“They have found that by doing so, they have had better results with compliance and general understanding of city policies,” she said.

Since building and planning offices see the most non-English speakers in Goshen, Stutsman guessed it could either indicate increased home-ownership among them or simply that the city’s efforts to make people aware of what kind of work needs a permit are paying off.

“In the Latino community, there’s a lot of word-of-mouth information that’s passed,” Hernandez said. “In this case that’s important because the family that just came to me last week to talk about getting a permit for installing new windows, now they can install their windows and they can tell their friends and their family, ‘Hey, you need a permit for that’ the next time they hear their friends or family are doing something similar to their house. They can have a better understanding of how that works and who they need to contact.”

The Water Utility office in Elkhart has the most contact with non-English speakers, Bearsch said, with about 25 phone calls and face-to-face conversations a day. The office has one employee who handles all translations and most customers who need the help will hold and wait for her.

The same employee translates mailings and bill inserts into Spanish.

Goshen has much of its city materials translated, including quarterly mailers and Facebook posts, Stutsman said. He said Hernandez is working with local Spanish-language newspaper El Puente to have the next round of documents and forms translated.

The city also added a translation feature when it redesigned its website about three years ago. The drop-down box can translate the text of the page you’re looking at into several different languages, though Stutsman noted a personal touch is sometimes needed.

“Since there’s so much information on there, we went the route of using Google Translate. And then the pieces that we feel are really, really important to have the perfect translation, we’ve been going back and correcting those,” he said.

Elkhart City’s website also includes a translate feature. An overhaul of the Elkhart County website later this year will add the feature.

County Health Department

The Health Department is one of the Elkhart County offices that sees non-English speakers most often. Health Officer Lydia Mertz said that includes Spanish speakers as well as other languages, like Russian and Vietnamese.

“We see Spanish speakers several times a day every day,” she said. “As you might imagine, they access all our services – from Healthy Beginnings to breast and cervical cancer screening to Vital Records.”

She added that the Environmental division doesn’t see as many non-English speakers, but people do come in for a variety of reasons.

“We can take care of them if they are running a Spanish market that needs inspection, for example, or a homeowner who has septic problems,” she said. “People living here who speak other languages use the same services as English speakers – requesting a death certificate, getting a child immunized, testing for diseases, getting nutritional help, etc.”

Mertz said all their divisions have bilingual employees, as well as the receptionist, and they offer translation as needed as part of their work. She noted when a clinic patient needs an interpreter, they stand on the other side of a curtain to give some privacy.

She said clients will sometimes bring an interpreter with them, especially those who speak one of the languages that are less frequently encountered, but most are aware that the office offers Spanish translation. They can also use a phone translation service on speakerphone, which opens up their language options.

“I don’t look at interpreter service as a burden at all,” Mertz said. “I always appreciate the help of the interpreters – we couldn’t do our jobs without them. And the healthier everyone in the county is, the better life is for everyone in the county.”

Police and courts

The Goshen Police Department has its own Spanish-speaking officers and staff members, according to Stutsman. 

“When they need help, they’re pretty good about taking care of that internally,” he said. “In the last three to four years, we’ve added several Latino officers and several Spanish-speakers, to help better serve the community.”

In Elkhart, the police use their Spanish-speaking officers or a chaplain when they need to communicate with non-English-speaking residents, according to Bearsch. She said the need arises five to six times a week

The 911 Communications Center uses a phone interpreter service for non-English-speaking callers, which happens about once a month.

City and county courts also commonly need to use interpreters. Bearch noted the Elkhart City Court is a separate branch of government from the other departments, and provides its own translation service for defendants.

Elkhart County Circuit Court and the six superior courts also frequently use an interpreter. The juvenile court does too, though Magistrate Deborah Domine said it can be a little different from the others.

“Something that’s different here is that usually there are more parties involved, such as the parents,” she said. “There are also a number of kids who speak English very well but their parents don’t, and they still need to know what’s going on.”

She said they try to schedule cases that they know will need an interpreter all on the same day of the week. There’s a woman on staff who speaks Spanish and can tell people to come back on the day the certified interpreter is available.

Representation

In addition to hiring bilingual employees to different areas of government and working with a translation phone service, Perez recommended local governments try to get bilingual students involved.

“Another idea is to work with the Goshen College and Goshen High School to have bilingual students do internships at city government offices,” he said. “This way bilingual students gain experience in their area of interest and at the same time assist residents from the Goshen community.”

His son, Felix Perez Diener, served a term as youth adviser on Goshen City Council, and was one of two Latino high schoolers to be elected to the non-voting position since it was created four years ago. Perez himself is running unopposed for the 5th District council seat this year.

Stutsman remarked on the slow but steady increase of Latino representation in city government, which he said started with the Goshen Community Schools board and will continue now with the first Latino city councilman. 

“When you’re dealing with elected officials and looking at diversity within them, a big piece of that is who is signing their names up to run. And then also how the population is voting,” he said. “I think you are gonna see that change happening in Goshen. ... I think that change just happens and will continue to happen, as more and more people become interested in participating at the city government level.”

Diversity in government can also be the result of deliberate action. He noted that as positions open up on various city boards, city council and mayoral appointments are being made with diversification in mind.

“Diversification happens over time – you don’t want to kick somebody off who’s doing a good job. So as those appointments become open, that’s where we get more strategic and we’re appointing to help make sure our boards and commissions are representing our community as a whole,” he said. “The way I look at it, it’s not about having a headcount. But it’s about making sure that the people who are appointed have a view of working for everybody.”

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