telephony

311 Tone Deaf on Language Options for Non-Native English Speakers

A LinkNYC terminal in Manhattan.
The Modern Phone Booth: A LinkNYC terminal in Manhattan. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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For the past two years, Local Law 30 has required city agencies to provide access to their services in 10 languages other than English: Spanish, “Chinese,” Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Korean, Arabic, Urdu, French and Polish.

But speakers with limited English proficiency wouldn’t know that when they dial 311.

Callers to the city’s information and complaints helpline are given the option of pressing a button for one of six languages in addition to English — not the full set required by law since 2017.

‘Six Is Not Enough’

The 311 service, which serves both as a complaint line and a referral service to city services, currently offers language assistance to people who speak Spanish, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean or Creole.

“Six is not enough and it’s not enough, very specifically, because of the legal mandate,” said Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the Committee on Immigration.

But the simple lack of options isn’t the only issue facing non-English speaking 311 users, Mechaca added.

Even if a caller selects one of the six available non-English languages — for example, Korean — they are given a pre-recorded message in their language, explaining that they will soon be connected to an English-speaking operator. The operator then greets the caller in English and attempts to link them with the appropriate interpreter, even though the person may not understand anything the operator says.

That was the experience of Korean, Mandarin and Creole speakers THE CITY asked to try the 311 system.

Some callers who speak little or no English get discouraged and hang up, Menchaca noted.

“That just highlights the fact that this system is not built for immigrants,” he added.

A spokesperson for the 311 program said its legal obligation is fulfilled via a contract with a company called Language Line, which provides interpreters who can be summoned to translate to and from an English-language 311 operator.

“311 has free interpreter services in up to 170 languages and has handled 397,000 calls this year in the 10 languages required in Local Law 30,” said the spokesperson, Bill Reda.

But it’s unclear how many may have given up before getting to that point.

In January, Menchaca introduced a bill that would require the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which operates 311, “to report on instances where calls were disconnected for failure to receive appropriate language assistance.”

The bill has been stalled in the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations for nearly a year.

Lost in Translation

In October 2018, at a joint meeting of the committees on Immigration and Governmental Operations, nonprofit groups representing immigrant communities testified on the need for greater oversight of 311 and compliance with Local Law 30.

Amy Torres, director of policy and advocacy at the Chinese-American Planning Council, which serves low-income immigrant New Yorkers, spoke at the October meeting. In an interview with THE CITY, she told of foreign-language speakers experiencing long waits when they request an interpreter.

Even when they get through, problems still arise, Torres noted.

“A caller may say that they request Fujianese or Cantonese, and they end up with a Korean or Japanese interpreter on the other line,” she said.

Torres called 311 an “incredible resource,” but said “it’s not until we have a very robust language access system that we can really see how beneficial and transformative 311 is.”

In January, at a joint meeting of the committees on Technology and Governmental Operations, Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked 311’s executive director, Joseph Morrisroe, why a caller who presses the button for, say, Russian, is connected to an English-speaking operator.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” noted Johnson

“It is a limitation to our telephony, to our customer relationship management system, how the data is passed,” Morrisoe replied.

That response didn’t satisfy Johnson.

‘That’s So Basic’

“I don’t want to paper over this,” Johnson said. “It is sort of unacceptable that today, in the most diverse city in the world, with hundreds of languages spoken, just on the languages that you accept to push the button on, that the operator doesn’t know you pressed the button on that language. I mean, that’s so basic.”

Reda, the 311 spokesperson, said that the problem of the operator not knowing which language a person chose was fixed in October  — although that operator does still speak English before conferencing in an interpreter.

“Since the hearing, 311 was able to address this and now when a customer presses a language option, that information is passed to the agent for a better customer experience,” he said. “There is no language access issue.”

Korean and Mandarin testers for THE CITY found that only on some calls did the 311 operator recognize the language as selected on the phone and then connects the caller with an interpreter.

Through a spokesperson, Johnson last week said he remains committed to improving 311.

“As promised, the Council is holding a follow-up hearing in early 2020 to see if progress has been made on the issues our oversight brought to light,” said Council spokesperson Jennifer Fermino. “We are a diverse city, and services for New Yorkers need to be accessible to everyone. Anything less is unacceptable.”

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