Another approach to overcome the language barrier

6 01 2011

West Valley City, Utah, is taking an interesting approach to dealing with their multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual community: the mayor announced an English initiative this week. At first I winced – principles of public participation typically state that we should communicate with people in their terms. An “English initiative” at first sounds elitist and euro-centric!

But upon further investigation, I see that the city is trying to compile a list of resources for their diverse community of citizens to have access to learning English as a method to more fully participate in civic life. For a city with limited budgets and resources, translating materials and getting the word out in multiple languages can be costly and ineffective even when intentions are good. Instead, the city is advocating affordable – even free – English as a Second Language classes by providing an online resource that lists opportunities for English classes and providing the incentive of recognition at a city council meeting for participants’ achievements.

Although the city council recognition may not mean much on the surface (it sounds largely ceremonial), it does reinforce the initiative’s connection to participation in civic decisions and activities. It also provides an opportunity for citizens who would not normally attend a city council meeting to be seen and recognized, perhaps engaging a whole new segment of the population that has remained mostly invisible or silent in local government.

I have to admit I still have some misgivings about the phrase “English initiative” – but I hope that it is just the linguistic phrase and that West Valley City can succeed in adding more voices to their civic dialogue through this educational outreach.