Lost in Translation
On the Internet, nobody knows you're unilingual.
Nothing animates capital campuses like the beginning of a new legislative session. The wooden desks, marble and brass in the chambers are reminders of the great traditions of representative government. But the quietly blinking LEDs of computing and network devices are reminders of how the public's business now gets done.
Downstairs in the bill room, the legislative hopper begins to fill. The first bills to drop offer a combination of trial balloons, bills ripped from the headlines, and perennial pet projects all vying for the early attention of committees as they gear up for another season of deliberation.
That curious mix often includes "official English" bills. Such measures have already passed in 28 states. The prime target is Spanish, but as the name suggests, the measures prohibit government from using any of the other 320 languages spoken in the United States while conducting official business -- including providing several types of public services.
Buoyed by their most recent win in Arizona through a citizen's initiative that passed in the November 2006 general election, English-only activists can reasonably be expected to set their sights on expanding their reach.
It is helpful to decouple the language or number of languages used in and by government to conduct official business from the debate over immigration, something the proponents in the official language movement tend not to do. Indeed, language use -- or more properly, which language(s) to use in conducting official public business -- has been caught in the undertow of the more complicated public policy issues related to what constitutes a reasonable, just and enforceable immigration policy.
All of this may seem a distant concern for these pages, but once one touches the question of how to develop and deliver multilingual services online, it naturally and inevitably exposes the public-sector IT community to the question of whether.
The exposure is not theoretical. With 13 percent of its population identified as Spanish-speakers, Utah saw an opportunity to extend service at incremental cost with Espa