Las Vegas hits the linguistics jackpot

Mar. 14, 2005

LAS VEGAS - The Las Vegas area is one of the most linguistically diverse metropolitan areas in the country, according to a national report released this week by the U.S. English Foundation.

The study, which ranked the Las Vegas metropolitan area 21st among the 200 metropolitan areas surveyed, found that 84 languages are spoken by southern Nevadans. Spanish, Tagalog, Chinese and German top the list of languages other than English most commonly spoken in local homes.
The foundation is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group devoted to improving English education for immigrants and advocating for English as the country's official language.
The study highlights the growing need that area law enforcement, courts, hospitals and other government agencies have for interpreters and bilingual employees. It also reflects Las Vegas' status as one of the country's leading international tourist destinations, officials said.
With an increasing diversity in languages spoken, the county's court system has had to develop an interpretation service that employs 30 interpreters and translators capable of communicating in 50 languages. The program started about 15 years ago with six interpreters and has grown with demand.
Leland Page, administrator of Interpretive Services for Clark County District Court, said his program has been able to keep up with demand.
"We're finding that as demand goes up, so does supply of interpreters," he said. "We certify three or four interpreters a year, and that's been on pace with our need so far."
But the Las Vegas Police Department is struggling to keep 23 part-time interpreters who speak mainly English and Spanish.
Sheriff Bill Young has asked for about $1 million over two years to continue the interpreter program. The federal grant that allowed the department to hire the interpreters two years ago is expected to run out by July.
"Officers are constantly responding to calls where the people aren't able to speak English," Young said. "Some of our officers work in extremely Latino neighborhoods where for 75 percent of the calls you can't be an effective police officer, you can't do your job, if you don't speak Spanish."
Recruiting bilingual officers has been slow, Young said, despite financial incentives for officers who speak more than one language.
Young said 8 percent of the department's 1,992 officers are Hispanic, but few of them speak Spanish. So, for now, the department relies on interpreters who are called to the scene when an officer needs help.
University Medical Center, the county-run public hospital, has four full-time interpreters who speak Portuguese, Hebrew and Spanish. About 15 other employees sometimes interpret for doctors who need to communicate with patients who speak a variety of other languages, including Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese and Tagalog.
"We definitely need more full-time interpreters," said Sylvia Vazquez, who oversees the hospital's translators and interpreters.