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I was born and spent my early childhood in Mexico, so I grew up speaking Spanish. But after my family immigrated to the United States, I lived in a rural, predominantly English-speaking town in northern Illinois. As I was learning English at school, I had to translate for my family. The demographics of this country have changed since then. Nowadays the The United States has the second largest population of Spanish speakers, including native and bilingual Spanish speakers, worldwide, after Mexico. About 13% of the American population speaks Spanish at home, which means that Spanish is the second most common language.
In the 1990s, the Spanish speaking population in the United States doubled and continues to grow to this day. We have seen major changes to linguistic accessibility, such as bilingual services and translated information and documents. It is rare to call customer service without a Spanish option available. Bilingual services are offered in many locations and stores. Schools offer bilingual programs. Yet there is so much more to be done, especially when it comes to many government services.
As I have just started writing and translating articles for Streetsblog Chicago, I am learning that language accessibility takes a long time. I have already devoted a lot of effort to finding specific terminology for town planning in Spanish. My first starting point for obtaining information in Spanish is the official website of the city of Chicago, chicago.gov. Over 15 percent of Chicagoans do not speak English. In 2015, the city council adopted the Ordinance on access to languages, which ensures that “people can access essential services in the languages most commonly spoken in the city”, which are, in order of number of speakers:
When browsing the city’s website, there is a visible Google Translate button which allows you to translate each internal chicago.gov web pages in most of these languages. (Translation into Urdu, a language commonly spoken in South Asia, is not available.) The translations provided by Google for Spanish are generally adequate. However, since these are direct computer-generated translations that do not take into account all the nuances of languages, the text can sometimes appear confusing and the sentences can be unintelligible.
Navigate the Chicago Department of Transportation page in Spanish is relatively easy. CDOT has a lot of material for Spanish speakers, but most of the internal documents or external links are in English only. For example, a web page that provides an overview of the CDOT Strategic Transport Plan can be translated into Spanish, but the document itself is only available in English. While a Spanish version of CDOT Chicago Bike Map was established in 2014, it has not been updated since, so not all cycling facilities installed in the last seven years are included. All other CDOT documents or infographics that I found on the ministry’s website were in English only.
As I translate my articles into Spanish, I realize that there are terms in English that I have never heard in Spanish. Relatively new technical terms, such as sidewalk bulbs, are difficult to translate. Terms specific to CDOT such as Neighborhood Greenways are also difficult to translate effectively. Looking for Spanish documents from other agencies, I encounter the same problem. Some websites use the Google Translate function or are translated by professionals, other pages such as those of the Illinois and US Departments of Transportation are completely lacking in translation services. To find the appropriate translation for certain terms, I have to search websites, articles, documents and webinars from Latin American countries or urban bloggers who write in Spanish.
It has become customary for CDOT to provide Spanish translation in Spanish speaking neighborhood meetings. Listening to the CDOT’s public meetings in Spanish, it is evident that the difficulty in translating urban planning terminology goes beyond providing information and resources in Spanish. The content presented is inaccessible even to English speakers. Often, CDOT planners and engineers use unfamiliar words and phrases such as curb, chicane, island refuge, road regime, etc. Semi-ambiguous or unclear words such as livable, improvement, equitable are added. Sometimes the presenter defines these words or pictures are used to illustrate the term, but even as someone familiar with the technical language of town planning, the presentations can be confusing to follow.
These words and concepts may be understood by some people, but this is not enough to ensure the full participation of the community. The translation service may seem superficial, as if it was only meant to tick a box, without really considering whether the Spanish-speaking participants can engage with the concepts being discussed.
I wonder if and how the CDOT measures effective community engagement with Spanish speakers and other people who may not be totally fluent with English (or if community engagement is measured at all.) There are also other elements to consider beyond the translation. Replacing English text with text in another language is not sufficient to garner precise feedback to inform planning decisions. We need to change more than words to truly engage and listen to comments from non-English speaking communities.
Planners, engineers and policy makers need to recognize that the kind of community engagement that allows residents to collaborate effectively can take more time and effort, and may vary from community to community. The planning process must also take into account social, cultural, racial and class barriers to participation. This includes holding meetings on weekends, providing opportunities to engage with other residents in the community, and paying residents for their knowledge and assessments. This work requires planners and engineers to develop relationships and build trust, as well as transparency and accountability, cultural competence and coalition building. Effective cultural competence means having more black and brown planners and engineers at the table and as decision makers. Building coalitions helps break down racial and class barriers to mobility.
We need more community education and plain language conversations with a localized context that the general public can understand and interact with. In an area like planning, which is technical and political, and requires community participation, linguistic accessibility is a necessary tool, but it does not guarantee that community voices will have an impact.