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Practitioners' Corner: Tips for Testing and Certifying Multilingual Employees
By Jason Reed
An effective language access program consists of language services that are: 1) available and timely; 2) clearly and accurately provided by someone who has demonstrated proficiency in two or more languages; and 3) cost effective. In Washington State, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) has determined that the best way to achieve timely, accurate, and cost-effective language services is through the use of multilingual employees.
What are some of the benefits of utilizing multilingual employees?
- Language services are more readily available compared to accessing services through contract. Issues associated with customer or contractor cancelations and no-shows can be avoided.
- Language services are provided directly to customers, reducing the potential for miscommunication.
- Language services can be much more cost effective, even when paying multilingual skill incentive pay to employees.
Are multilingual employees the right choice for your organization?
Factors to consider when determining whether multilingual employees are right for your organization include:
- Language demographics: consider the non-English language demographics of your service delivery area and identify/track customers by primary language.
- Frequency of contact with limited English proficient (LEP) customers: how often are employees in direct contact with customers in your organization? Be sure to consider initial customer contact, including requests for information and walk-ins.
- How will multilingual employees be utilized: would multilingual employees in your organization provide services directly to customers or would they function as a third party interpreter and/or translator for other staff?
- What skills will be needed: would multilingual employees use written language skills, oral language skills, or both?
- Ability to hire full-time equivalent (FTE) staff: does your organization have the ability to hire new staff or reassign the responsibilities of or replace existing monolingual staff?
- Availability of qualified multilingual staff: do existing or potential employees have sufficient multilingual skills to perform their duties effectively in the necessary non-English language?
Once you have determined that multilingual employees are right for your organization, these same questions will help you determine the right framework for assessing an employee's multilingual skills.
How should your organization determine the language skills of your multilingual employees?
There are both formal and informal approaches for assessing an employee's non-English language proficiency. Informally, when reviewing a person's resume, you may look at whether a candidate has education in a non-English language, experience working with LEP individuals, or any non-English language certification that s/he may possess. In an in-person interview, you may choose to conduct a portion of the interview in the non-English language.
What standard does Washington State DSHS use to test its current employees and new recruits with multilingual assignments?
Given our caseload and the types of services that we provide, in addition to a legal mandate, DSHS opted to develop our own formal testing program.
DSHS provides comprehensive language testing in Cambodian (Khmer), Chinese-Cantonese, Chinese-Mandarin, Korean, Lao, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Testing is available for seven different “position clusters” or job classification types (see description of position clusters in the Bilingual Employee Test Information link below). Most positions require testing of both written and oral language skills.
The written test is composed of five sections:
- A multiple-choice non-English language vocabulary test.
- A multiple-choice non-English language reading comprehension test.
- A non-English language written summarization exercise
- An English to non-English language translation exercise.
- A non-English to English language translation exercise.
The oral test is composed of a sight translation exercise and a consecutive interpretation exercise.
It is important to note that ensuring the quality of multilingual employees does not begin or end with a test. Training and continuing education before and after testing is also necessary to maintain a multilingual employee's language skills.
Who is required to take the test?
According to Washington State law, DSHS policies, and the consent decree between DSHS and Legal Services, all DSHS employees serving in a multilingual capacity are required to obtain certification status by successfully passing a bilingual fluency test. Bilingual duties are not assigned to staff without proper certification.
What type of pay differential do multilingual employees receive?
There are a few options available for remunerating multilingual workers:
- Pay a flat monthly rate for all multilingual employees (e.g., $40/month).
- Pay per multilingual encounter.
- Provide a salary increase.
In DSHS, we provide a salary increase equivalent to 5 percent of the employee's salary provided s/he has met eligibility and testing requirements. In Washington State, pay has been negotiated with labor unions and is not intended for additional workload. Instead, multilingual employees receive additional incentive or assignment pay because of their non-English language proficiency.
What other language skills testing does DSHS offer?
In addition to testing its multilingual employees, DSHS conducts language skills testing for the following candidates:
- Contracted interpreters providing oral interpretation services to DSHS social service programs.Comprehensive language and interpreter skills testing in Cambodian (Khmer), Chinese-Cantonese, Chinese-Mandarin, Korean, Lao, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Screening of language and interpreter skills in all other languages.
- Contracted translators providing written translation services to DSHS social service programs.Comprehensive translation skills testing in Cambodian (Khmer), Chinese, Korean, Lao, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
- Medical interpreters providing oral interpretation services to DSHS clients in medical settings.Comprehensive language and interpreter skills testing in Cambodian (Khmer), Chinese-Cantonese, Chinese-Mandarin, Korean, Lao, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Screening of language and interpreter skills in all other languages.
- Licensed agency personnel whose agency is providing services to DSHS under contract. Comprehensivelanguage skills testing in Cambodian (Khmer), Chinese-Cantonese, Chinese-Mandarin, Korean, Lao, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), State of Washington. 2006. Bilingual Employee Test Information. Washington State: DSHS. [download]
______. 2007. Professional Language Certification Examination Manual. Washington State: DSHS Language Testing and Certification. [download]
______. 2008. Dual Language Assignment Pay (draft). Washington State: DSHS. [download]
Jason Reed is the Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Program Manager for the Economic Services Administration within the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Jason's current responsibilities include developing and implementing language access policies and procedures, writing and oversight of the interpreter/translation service contracts for the Department, and training staff on the Department's language access program.
Jason has 15 years of experience working with language access issues for DSHS. His previous responsibilities have included working as a Spanish language translator and managing the Department's language testing and certification program.