Lost in Translation: Overcoming Language Barriers for Opportunity

Jeremy Ney
7 min readAug 30, 2023

Let’s examine the impact of Low-English Proficiency on employment, education, and voting rights.

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“Una Nación bajo Dios, entera, con libertad y justicia para todos.”

How can a nation promote liberty and justice for all if it cannot communicate with its citizens?

The number of Americans who speak a language other than English at home has tripled since 1980. Yet walking around most American cities, you’d think English was everyone’s preferred language — as well as one they spoke fluently. That is, of course, not the case. Twenty-five million Americans have low-English proficiency. Low-English Proficiency, or LEP, refers to being unable to speak English as your primary language or having a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English because of your language preference.

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Without the ability to communicate easily or effectively, millions of Americans go unemployed, uninsured, and unrepresented. For example, those with low-English proficiency are 3x less likely to be insured as those who can speak English fluently, in part because navigating our healthcare system requires digging through mountains of English-only documents and forms.

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Testing for the wrong thing

As long as our schools and systems of government and commerce fail to reflect our multicultural and multilingual society, we will fall short of our collective potential. By way of example, consider that eight states, including Louisiana, still require high school students to pass exit exams written only in English to graduate — despite substantial evidence that such exams disproportionately result in Black and Latino students missing out on receiving their diplomas. There is also no evidence that English-only exit exams improve academic achievement or employment rates. For LEP students, this out of date insistence on the supremacy of English can come at a cost to the individual student and their community. Nineteen states have dropped these exit exams since the mid 1990s due to these inequalities.

Louisiana provides a frustratingly stark case study. In 2019, 80% of all English-proficient Louisiana high school students graduated; yet, for English Learners, or those “who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English,” the graduation rate hovered around 41%. The state insists on having English-only exams to graduate, which disproportionately impacts those may not speak English as their primary language.

The outdated and discriminatory effect of such exams became clear during the pandemic. When several states gave up on exit exams due to the practical difficulties imposed by COVID, graduation rates for English Learners increased seven percent.

English as an opportunity for employment

Research from the U.S. Census indicated that “people who spoke a language other than English at home were less likely to be employed, less likely to find full-time work when employed, and, even having found full-time employment, experienced lower median earnings than those who spoke only English.” Wages for LEP workers were 20% lower annually and those who spoke no English at all saw their incomes drop by half. For the professions studied, farmers had the smallest nominal earnings gap while managers had the largest gap.

A multilingual education system and economy would lift up communities across the country. As evidenced by the map above, there are pockets of the country where an outdated, systemic bias toward English has caused poverty to spread where diverse, multilingual systems could blossom.

Starr County, Texas is the least English-speaking county in America. One in two residents lacks proficiency in English. One in three people there live in poverty — the median income is $31K. White students graduate at a 25% higher rate than Hispanic students.

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Meanwhile, in Miami-Dade County, Florida, one in three residents lack English proficiency yet, the median income is nearly twice as high. Additionally, there is a much smaller gap in high school graduation rates. In 2019, Hispanic students in Miami had an 89% graduation rate and White students had a 93% graduation rate. Miami has embraced Spanish and also helped English become its most studied language, ensuring that students thrive regardless of their first language.

Blocking the right to Vote

Language can be a real barrier to voting, and current policies amplify those barriers.

Existing law does not go far enough to encourage democratic participation, regardless of English proficiency. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) requires that states provide language assistance to voters if more than five percent of voting age citizens in that jurisdiction satisfy a few conditions.

However, As pointed out by NPR, these “complicated formulas” for these few conditions have nevertheless resulted in millions of Americans receiving multilingual election information.

Some simple fixes could go a long way toward achieving the intent of the Voting Rights Act as well as our potential as a democratic nation. Lawmakers should lower the threshold for when such a minority group qualifies for multilingual education to one or two percent to increase the odds of all voters having the information required to make informed decisions. Lawmakers can also ensure pamphlets and voting materials are written in non-English to improve the actual ability to vote. This information can increase voter turnout and shift electoral outcomes.

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The Path Forward

Just as other countries have long insisted on providing students with a multilingual education and distributing government materials in several languages, the United States must recognize that in global, interconnected world, English isn’t the only game in town.

  • 🎪 Expand the definition of “Language Minority Group -In addition to the VRA amendments offered above, lawmakers should expand the definition of “language minority group,” which currently only includes “persons who are American Indian, Asian American, Alaskan Natives, or of Spanish heritage.” It doesn’t take a demographer to tell you that there are many language minority groups omitted from that list. The current definition is exclusionary to the detriment of our collective democratic community, such as the 345,000 low-English proficiency Haitian-Creole speakers and the 456,000 low-English proficiency Arabic speakers.
  • 🆓 Offer free English-language courses: Many countries offer free language courses for laborers, which has had very positive effects on employment and earnings. Sweden provides foreigners with unlimited Swedish lessons at no cost, with many of these lessons built into job-training programs. France offers 400 hours of language instruction with free child care, though some have noted that in order to qualify for this course you need to attend “a short indoctrination session on French values.” Canada offers free language classes to immigrants, and like in France, many of these lessons come with free child care and transportation. The German model may be best to follow here, which is specifically designed to focus on language training for employment. Researchers have found the program increased participants’ employment probability by more than 9 percent after 2 years. A US program would require roughly 350 hours to reach a functional level of language proficiency.
  • 🗳️ Update language voting requirements — 331 jurisdictions in 30 states must offer non-English voting materials, covering 80 million voting-age Americans. Policies like these to offer multi-language voting materials have proven to increase voting rates. Notably, California, Florida and Texas are required to provide Spanish-language ballots for every statewide election, even if specific local communities don’t need to do so for their elections. This broader approach should be adopted in other states with high-immigrant populations, like New York and New Jersey.

Arguments against these policies are unconvincing. Angelo Ancheta, a civil rights attorney who has also written about language voting laws, points out, “It’s not cheap to produce ballots in other languages. There are a lot of logistical issues. We can’t ignore those.” Financial barriers as a means to reduce participation by certain Americans has a long history in the U.S. But without all language present, we cannot truly have a representative democracy. Language education and involvement will ensure that America lives up to its ideal.

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Jeremy Ney

Former Federal Reserve policymaker, currently at Google, now writing about inequality at AmericanInequality.substack.com