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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Uni-lingual Washington State

posted by on March 1 at 14:02 PM

I just came back from the Washington State driver’s licensing center downtown, where, once again, I witnessed a Spanish-speaking customer getting the very least helpful service possible from a non-robotic customer service representative. There were no bilingual clerks on duty. So instead of slowing down, and trying to explain what other kinds of ID the man could bring in to get a license, the woman just talked louder and faster. “This isn’t enough!” Basically all she could say. Not only did I not see any bilingual staff, but there weren’t even brochures in Spanish. Isn’t it a bit late for this?

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Don't you know, people who don't speak english are deaf.

Posted by monkey | March 1, 2007 2:06 PM

Sounds like Patty and Selma are doing their usual bang up job.

Posted by Original Andrew | March 1, 2007 2:10 PM

Angela, if you provide bilingual clerks, it will encourage the massive invasion of filthy Mexicans that is ruining this country.

(posted tongue in cheek, of course)

Posted by Mike in MO | March 1, 2007 2:13 PM

Last time I checked road signs were all in English. So if this person couldn't understand even a little basic English, are we sure we want him on the road?

Posted by Tony Danza's the Boss | March 1, 2007 2:16 PM

And where are the Norwegian-speaking reps? Don't get me started on the lack of Bantu-language literature! Seriously, though, although I think they should have some pamphlets in the more common foreign languages, I don't think they should have to hire bilingual clerks (although it is sad so few people in the US speak foreign languages).

I guess the clerk didn't know she spoke a word of Spanish that could've helped: "No."

Posted by him | March 1, 2007 2:27 PM

Tony Danza, that's why they make road signs special shapes and colors. Hell half the signs are just symbols for that very reason.

When I was in Belgium driving around I had no problem understand what signs meant even though I don't speak Flemish, Dutch, or French.

Posted by monkey | March 1, 2007 2:27 PM

Most of the really important road signs (Stop, Caution, Yield) have distinctive shapes and colors. I'm sure a non-English speaker would do perfectly fine, at least as well as (probably better than) a person who can't read.

Posted by keshmeshi | March 1, 2007 2:29 PM

the situation described basically illustrates one problem: an unhelpful and unfriendly clerk.

Posted by infrequent | March 1, 2007 2:31 PM

I had no trouble driving in Mexico. Road signs are not very hard to figure out.

Posted by Fnarf | March 1, 2007 2:52 PM

The only languages in the US spoken by at least 1% of the population are English, Spanish, and (actually just under 1%) Chinese (mostly Cantonese). Other languages are spoken quite rarely.

It's not unrealistic to have documents in those languages available, and a known process to help people who don't speak good English. It's also a good idea to hire at least one person who speaks Spanish. There are plenty of fluent Spanish speakers around.

When I worked in the state Consumer Protection office over ten years ago, materials were available in these languages and in a handful of other common languages, too. I remember Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian. The manager of the Yakima office spoke fluent Spanish and any consumer complaints in Spanish from around the state were forwarded to that office. It worked well for basically no additional cost. There's no reason the DOL can't do something similar.

Posted by Cascadian | March 1, 2007 3:04 PM

i think you might have come at a bad time or to a very busy location. When i went to the Kirkland branch a couple of years ago, they had Spanish and some asian language materials (i didn't look close enough to make a guess as to if it was japanese, chinese, thai, etc). it could be they were just out of the other languages at the moment.

Posted by ddv | March 1, 2007 3:13 PM

My partner & I manage an apartment complex on the eastside, and a large number of our tennants are Hispanic, some English speaking and some not. We tried going through our manager's company to get lease forms in Spanish, and were suprised at the terse "No" we got. They acted like we wanted to let them live there rent free! We finally just hired someone in the building to translate for us.

Posted by Special K | March 1, 2007 3:26 PM

Did anyone there speak Spanish and offer to help translate for the guy? Did you? My Spanish is not so great, but I would have.

Posted by ivan | March 1, 2007 3:27 PM

I tried to help. Unfortunately, my Spanish isn't very good and I don't know the law.

Posted by Angela Valdez | March 1, 2007 3:35 PM

Just to point out the issues here, @10:

It's not unrealistic to have documents in those languages available, and a known process to help people who don't speak good English. It's also a good idea to hire at least one person who speaks Spanish

The issue isn't whether it's unrealistic or a good idea. That simply tells us what your, my, our, etc. opinions are. The issues are must the government do so? Does the Spanish-only speaker have a right to a Spanish-speaking clerk? Do the people of the state/county/city have a right to define what language their government conducts its business in?

I don't have answers to those questions, or even really strong opinions, but I've always been irritated at the "well, obviously we have to do everything in every language" perception among some people. (not saying @10 is one of them)

Posted by torrentprime | March 1, 2007 3:36 PM

What about electronic detour signs, or direction signs over highways, or less common signs like "exempt" or "except Sundays"? What happens when a non-English speaker gets into an accident and needs to exchange insurance info? Operating a car is dangerous -- there are times when being able to communicate is very very important, and very very hard if all you understand are pictures.

Don't get me wrong, I hate the DMV. And I don't think newcomers to the US should be forced to learn English; but in return, the US can't be expected to predict and accommodate for every need that will arise for someone who chooses not to learn the generally agreed-upon language.

Posted by mattymatt | March 1, 2007 3:47 PM

I think it's a question of good management. Government provides services to citizens and residents. If a significant number of people in a community would be served by a policy, and the marginal cost of the policy is negligible, it's simply bad management not to adopt the policy. That's particularly true when there are costs to doing nothing, such as an untrained clerk standing around wasting everyone's time because there's no process in place for dealing sensibly with people who speak Spanish and not English.

I have no problem with laws that mandate good management practices in government. I don't think it's a matter of rights, but saving money and improving service is something a functional government must do.

Posted by Cascadian | March 1, 2007 3:48 PM

My absentee ballots are bilingual (Chinese and English) for some reason, and when I went down to the courthouse for jury duty, the "guns are not allowed in the courthouse" signs were written in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. What is that all about? Chinese people vote, but Hispanics and Vietnamese people bring guns to courthouses?

Posted by Andy | March 1, 2007 4:38 PM

For some reason, I have troubles getting service in Canadian at the centres downtown, and they refuse to translate it into language I can understand. It's too much labour they say.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 1, 2007 5:04 PM

#17: I agree. It's just a matter of providing good customer service, like any other business. They should provide materials in Spanish and Chinese because it would allow them to serve the public better, not because they HAVE to. Just because the DMV doesn't have competition for customers, doesn't mean they have to provide crap service.

Posted by language | March 1, 2007 5:25 PM

As I'm sure many of us remember from high school or college language classes, it's much easier to read a foreign language than speak it or understand it when it's spoken to you. I work with a lot of recent immigrants in this situation, and it's really tough for them if they can't understand the written material, there's no version of it available in their language, and there's no one around who speaks their language to help them out.

I'm not one of those people that torrentprime mentions who thinks everything should be provided in every language. I'm all for immigrants learning and using English-- but I'm also all for Americans learning other languages, so that it's not such a rarity to find a person at the DMV or the bank or wherever who speaks Spanish, French, Chinese, or whatever.

Posted by Megan | March 1, 2007 5:28 PM

Anyone know in what languages Mexico and Spain print their DMV brochures?

Posted by smade | March 2, 2007 8:20 AM

strange- I recently tried to renew my license at the Greenwood DOL and their camera was broken so I relocated to the Northgate office. At both locations signs and brochures were printed in multiple languages and staff politely asked people which language they wanted to take their drivers tests in. The DT office needs to get their act together.
Also, remember that a US drivers license is valid to rent a car in almost every other country- signs with pictures and basic driving skills are considered sufficient despite language barriers. I'm a lot more concerned about the drunks, cellphone talkers, and punk teenagers on the road than I am about Mexicans!

Posted by natbot | March 2, 2007 9:31 AM

40 million Hispanics live in the U.S. 29 million Americans speak Spanish as a first language. Hispanics make up the largest immigrant population, and the numbers are increasing steadiliy. It's time to wake up and acknowledge that we are a bilingual country, and start manadating that ALL official documents are available in Spanish as well as English. (For the sake of comparison: around 17% of Canadians speak French as a first language, and the number is declining; around 10% of Americans speak Spanish as a first language, and the number is increasing.)

Posted by Gurldoggie | March 2, 2007 9:53 AM

Who the fuck cares, I speak fluent spanish, but I have enough sense to know that if I want to convey what I need to at a government office I should at least bring a english speaking friend with me. English is the pre-dominant language in this country at this time in history, deal with it. Just because 10% percent of the population
speaks spanish doesn't mean that they should spend thousands of dollars to print out pamphlets just for her, although it would be nice. Just so you know, they are usually rude to me as well, even when we are both speaking the same language.

Posted by kubla | March 2, 2007 10:13 AM

Kubla--it costs no more to print a Spanish pamphlet than an English one. So long as the number of Spanish-language pamphlets reflects the population of Spanish speakers, it's the same expense either way, minus the negligible initial translation costs.

Posted by Cascadian | March 2, 2007 4:07 PM

Si Uds. no pueden hablar espanol, y dicen que nadie debe hablar esponal en las oficinas del gobeirno de EE.UU., cpues, solo quiero decirles, callense las bocas.

Una oficina del gobierno existe para servir le gente; los nativos, los residentes, los quienes pueden hablar el idioma nativo del luger y los quienes no lo pueden hacer.

Si hay una porcentaje de la gente de lengua extrangera, por que no hariamos empleados del gobeirno quienes pudieran hablar este idioma? Es muy tonto decir "un idioma solo! Nosotros debemos demostrar nuestras falta linguisticas!"

Si uds. fueran en Espana intentando a charlar con un empleado del gobierno alla, dirian "oh, please make it hard on me by not having anyone who speaks English" -- dirian "muchas gracias para la ayuda, le agradecimos mucho!"
y saltirian sintiendo muy bien tratado.
"Que amistoso son!"

La cuestion es, es mejor estar tonto o inteligente, no? Unos en este blog queiren que estemos tontos y mas, que la ley lo requiera.

(disculpame por adelantado por los errores -- no recuerdo bien el subjuntivo--y todo la ortografia)--

Posted by kleber | March 2, 2007 4:35 PM

Si, puedo hablar. Dormirte.

Posted by chenga | March 4, 2007 3:58 AM

no recuerdo bien el subjuntivo

Why can't you remember?

Posted by chengate | March 4, 2007 4:05 AM

I lived in Spain for a year, and never whined about something not being printed/spoken in english, and I certainly didn't expect it. If I couldn't figure it out with my high school spanish (or thought I might not be able to) I just took a native speaker with me, or was very, very polite and patient. It's not that difficult to either a) learn the basics of another language, or b) act so polite/clueless that people will help out of sympathy.

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