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Common Language Access Questions, Technical Assistance, and Guidance for Federally Conducted and Federally Assisted Programs

Also available on this page

In his Memorandum for Heads of Federal Agencies regarding the Federal Government's Renewed Commitment to Language Access Obligations Under Executive Order 13166, the Attorney General directed federal agencies to appoint a language access coordinator. This individual is responsible for ensuring that the agency adheres to its language access plan, policy directives, and procedures to provide meaningful access to LEP persons. The language access coordinator should report to a high-ranking official within the agency. The coordinator is responsible for language assistance services and may delegate duties but should retain ultimate responsibility for oversight, performance, and implementation of the language access plan. Federal agencies with multiple offices and divisions may find that each component or field office should designate an individual as a local language access coordinator. The language access plan should set forth the name and contact information of the responsible official(s). The language access coordinator should consider creating a working group of key stakeholders to assist in implementing and creating language access procedures for the agency. See Language Access Assessment and Planning Tool for Federally Conducted and Federally Assisted Programs

  • In his Memorandum for Heads of Federal Agencies regarding the Federal Government's Renewed Commitment to Language Access Obligations Under Executive Order 13166, the Attorney General directed federal agencies that provide Federal financial assistance to draft recipient guidance.
  • Federal financial assistance includes, but is not limited to, grants and loans of federal funds; grants or donations of federal property; training; details of federal personnel; or any agreement, arrangement, or other contract which has as one of its purposes the provision of assistance. For instance, the Department of Justice provides federal financial assistance to several agencies, primarily state and local law enforcement agencies, and departments of corrections.
  • Federal agencies providing federal financial assistance should obtain information and maintain records that ensure that they can determine which entities have received such assistance, including a list of subgrantees, and for what purpose the assistance has been provided.
  • Federal agencies that provide Federal financial assistance must ensure that recipients of Federal financial assistance acknowledge and agree that they will comply (and require any subgrantees, contractors, successors, transferees, and assignees to comply) with applicable provisions of Federal laws and policies prohibiting discrimination, including but not limited to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, which prohibits recipients from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin (including language) (42 U.S.C. 2000d et seq.). Model assurance language can be found at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/cor/draft_assurance_language.pdf.
  • Federal agencies that provide Federal financial assistance must require recipients to obtain these assurances from their subrecipients and must maintain systems that can record and track the recipient's agreement with these assurances (28 CFR 42.105 et seq.).
  • Federal agencies have a variety of mechanisms for securing recipient compliance with Title VI, including, but not limited to, executing assurances of nondiscrimination, conducting periodic compliance reviews, conducting complaint-based investigations, noncomplaint-based investigations, negotiating settlement agreements, and taking judicial action. These mechanisms are in addition to any programmatic compliance specific to the agency providing Federal financial assistance.
  • Agencies must ensure that communications with recipients, including at the conclusion of a term of financial assistance documenting satisfaction with financial assistance deliverables, do not imply that the recipient was or is in compliance with Title VI.

  • Agreements with other subcomponents, field or district offices, or federal agencies can be a cost-effective approach to language assistance services. For example, many intelligence community components have arrangements with the National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC) to provide translations.
    • Is your agreement with the other entity in writing?
    • Is it a reciprocal arrangement? How long is the agreement in place?
    • How do you ensure that both parties to the agreement are satisfied? Is there an opportunity to revisit the agreement?
  • Agreements between agencies to provide interpretation or translation must also consider who will serve as interpreters or translators. For example, an agency must still ensure that any interpreter or translator working on behalf of the agency is competent.
  • LEP individuals from immigrant communities may fear communicating or divulging personal information to interpreters from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because of those agencies' missions. Using such interpreters may undermine efforts towards effective communication.
  • Generally, if your agency continues to seek language assistance services from a specific agency, you may consider drafting a written language assistance services agreement with that agency. A written document can clarify each entity's role and responsibility and can serve to memorialize and document the arrangement. This can be especially useful in the event of changes in staffing.

  • In his Memorandum for Heads of Federal Agencies regarding the Federal Government's Renewed Commitment to Language Access Obligations Under Executive Order 13166, the Attorney General directed each federal agency to develop and implement a system by which LEP persons can meaningfully access the agency's services.
  • A Language Access Implementation Plan helps management and staff understand their roles and responsibilities with respect to overcoming language barriers for LEP individuals. The plan is a management document that outlines how the agency has or will define language assistance tasks, set deadlines and priorities, assign responsibility, and allocate the resources necessary to come into or maintain compliance with language access requirements. It describes how the agency will effectuate the service delivery standards delineated in the policy directives, including the manner by which it will address the language service and resource needs identified in a self-assessment.
  • Language Policy Directives set forth standards, operating principles, and guidelines that govern the delivery of language appropriate services. Policy directives may come in different forms but are designed to require the agency and its staff to ensure meaningful access. Policy directives should be made publicly available.
  • Language Access Procedures are the "how to" for staff. They specify for staff the steps to follow to provide language services, gather data, and deliver services to LEP individuals. Procedures can be set forth in handbooks, intranet sites, desk references, reminders at counters, notations on telephone references, and the like.

  • In his Memorandum for Heads of Federal Agencies regarding the Federal Government's Renewed Commitment to Language Access Obligations Under Executive Order 13166, the Attorney General asked each federal agency to evaluate and/or update your current response to LEP needs by, among other things, conducting an inventory of languages most frequently encountered, identifying the primary channels of contact with LEP community members (whether telephonic, in person, correspondence, web-based, etc.), and reviewing agency programs and activities for language accessibility.
  • Agencies may need to update program operations, services provided, outreach activities, and other mission-specific activities to reflect current language needs. For example, changes in demographics, types of services provided, or the economy may impact the number and languages spoken by LEP individuals who participate in your agency's program or activities.
  • Agencies should, where appropriate, have a process for determining, on an ongoing basis, whether new documents, programs, services, and activities need to be made accessible for LEP individuals, and they may want to provide notice of any changes in services to the LEP public and to employees.
  • Each agency should establish a schedule to periodically evaluate and update agency LEP services and LEP policies, plans, and protocols. At a minimum, periodic reviews should occur on a biannual basis.

  • View federal agency plans, DOJ guidance documents, and other resources at www.lep.gov
  • Consult with the Civil Rights Division, Federal Coordination and Compliance Section, http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/cor/
  • Consult with frontline staff, management, or others in your office to evaluate the language services needed
  • Consult with internal divisions or regional offices to assess how they provide language services
  • Consult with outside experts to assess how they provide language services
  • Consult with the public, non-profit organizations and other community stakeholders
  • Obtain help in constructing multilingual websites at https://digital.gov/communities/multilingual

  • It is important to monitor the effectiveness of your Language Access Implementation Plan in order to ensure that LEP individuals have meaningful access to agency programs or activities. In his Memorandum for Heads of Federal Agencies regarding the Federal Government's Renewed Commitment to Language Access Obligations Under Executive Order 13166, the Attorney General emphasized the need to evaluate your current response to LEP individuals. As some strategies may prove more effective than others, ongoing monitoring can help an agency fine-tune the provision of language assistance services and can potentially realize cost-savings over time.
  • Some federal agencies may designate a committee or staff person to be the language access coordinator responsible for monitoring and evaluating your agency's Language Access Implementation Plan. Monitoring the effectiveness of your Plan may include:
    • Analyzing current and historical data on language assistance usage, including languages served; o Observing the provision of language assistance services through audits or testing;
    • Surveying staff on how often they use language assistance services, if they believe there should be changes in the way services are provided or the providers that are used, and if they believe that the language assistance services in place are meeting the needs of the LEP communities in your service area;
    • Conducting customer satisfaction surveys of LEP applicants and beneficiaries based on their actual experience of accessing the agency's programs, benefits or services;
    • Soliciting feedback from community-based organizations and other stakeholders about the agency's effectiveness and performance in ensuring meaningful access for LEP individuals;
    • Updating community demographics and needs by engaging school districts, faith communities, refugee resettlement agencies, and other local resources;
    • Considering new resources including funding, collaborations with other agencies, human resources, and other mechanisms for ensuring improved access for LEP individuals; and
    • Monitoring your agency's response rate to complaints or suggestions by LEP individuals, community members and employees regarding language assistance services provided.

  • In his Memorandum for Heads of Federal Agencies regarding the Federal Government's Renewed Commitment to Language Access Obligations Under Executive Order 13166, the Attorney General asked each federal agency to notify the public, through mechanisms that will reach the LEP communities it serves, of its LEP policies and LEP access-related developments. Examples of methods for publicizing LEP access information include, but are not limited to, posting on agency websites, issuing print and broadcast notifications, providing relevant information at "town hall" style meetings, and issuing press releases. Agencies should consult with their information technology specialists, civil rights personnel, and public affairs personnel to develop a multi-pronged strategy to achieve maximum and effective notification to LEP communities.
  • Other methods for publicizing language assistance services include: o Posting signs in intake areas and other entry points; o Stating in outreach documents that language services are available from the agency; o Using a telephone voice mail menu to provide information about available language assistance services and how to get them; o Working with community-based organizations and other stakeholders to inform LEP individuals of the agency's services, including the availability of language assistance services; and, o Including notices in local and ethnic media.
  • Agencies should provide notice about its language assistance services in languages LEP persons will understand.

  • When language services are not readily available at a given agency or an LEP individual does not know about the availability of language assistance services, LEP individuals will be less likely to participate in or benefit from an agency's programs and services. As a result, many LEP persons may not seek out agency benefits, programs, and services; may not offer vital assistance in investigations or information that would help determine entitlement or eligibility for benefits; may not file complaints; and may not have access to critical information provided by the agency because of limited access to language services.
  • Organizations that have significant contact with LEP persons, such as schools, religious organizations, community groups, and groups working with new immigrants can be very helpful in linking LEP persons to an agency's programs and its language assistance services.
  • Community-based organizations provide important input into the language access planning process and can often assist in identifying populations for whom outreach is needed and who would benefit from the agency's programs and activities were language services provided.
  • Community-based organizations may also be useful in recommending which outreach materials the agency should translate. As documents are translated, community-based organizations may be able to help consider whether the documents are written at an appropriate level for the audience.
  • Community-based organizations may also provide valuable feedback to the agency to help the agency determine whether its language assistance services are effective in overcoming language barriers for LEP persons.

  • In his Memorandum for Heads of Federal Agencies regarding the Federal Government's Renewed Commitment to Language Access Obligations Under Executive Order 13166, the Attorney General requested that each federal agency identify LEP contact situations and take the necessary steps to provide meaningful access. Agency staff should be able to, among other tasks, identify LEP contact situations, determine primary language of LEP individuals, and effectively utilize available options to assist in interpersonal, electronic, print, and other methods of communication between the agency and LEP individuals.
  • Staff at the point of first contact with an individual must determine whether that person is LEP, must determine his/her primary language, and procure the appropriate language assistance services. Standardizing the method for identifying an LEP person and his/her language helps an agency provide consistent and meaningful access to the program or activity sought. An individual's primary language will be identified and documented utilizing one or more of the following methods:

1) Use of "I Speak" Language Identification Cards; an example of such a card from the U.S. Census Bureau is available at: http://www.justice.gov/crt/lep/resources/ISpeakCards2004.pdf;

2) Use of a language identification poster displayed in the reception or intake area;

3) Verification of foreign language proficiency by qualified bilingual staff (in-person, telephonically, or through video interpretation services);

4) Verification of foreign language proficiency by a qualified interpreter (in-person, telephonically, or through video interpretation services); or,

5) Self-identification by the LEP individual or identification by a companion.

  • Creating a record of language assistance services can help inform agencies with respect to whether there should be changes to the quantity or type of language assistance services. For instance, agencies may decide to hire qualified bilingual staff for positions in which there is a high-incidence language need.
  • Agencies should keep a record of the number of LEP individuals served, the primary language spoken by each LEP person encountered, and the type of language assistance provided (oral or written) during each encounter, if any.
  • Procurement offices should also consider preparing for management an annual estimate of the cost of translation and interpretation services within the agency. This will help management ensure that resources are appropriately allocated to the most critical programs, geographic areas, or languages.

There are two primary types of language assistance services: oral and written.

  • Oral language assistance service may come in the form of "in-language" communication (a demonstrably qualified bilingual staff member communicating directly in an LEP person's language) or interpreting. Interpretation can take place in-person, through a telephonic interpreter, or via internet or video interpreting. An interpreter is a person who renders a message spoken in one language into one or more languages. An interpreter must be competent and have knowledge in both languages of the relevant terms or concepts particular to the program or activity and the dialect and terminology used by the LEP individual. Depending upon the circumstances, language assistance services may call upon interpreters to provide simultaneous interpretation of proceedings so that an LEP person understands what is happening in that proceeding, or to interpret an interview or conversation with an LEP person in a consecutive fashion. Interpreter competency requires more than self-identification as bilingual. "Some bilingual staff and community volunteers, for instance, may be able to communicate effectively in a different language when communicating information directly in that language, but may not be competent to interpret in and out of English." Agencies should avoid using family members, children, friends, and untrained volunteers as interpreters because it is difficult to ensure that they interpret accurately and lack ethical conflicts.
  • Translation is the replacement of written text from one language into another. A translator also must be qualified and trained. Federal agencies may need to identify and translate vital documents to ensure LEP individuals have meaningful access to important written information. Vital written documents include, but are not limited to, consent and complaint forms; intake and application forms with the potential for important consequences; written notices of rights; notices of denials, losses, or decreases in benefits or services; notice of disciplinary action; signs; and notices advising LEP individuals of free language assistance services. Agencies should proactively translate vital written documents into the frequently encountered languages of LEP groups eligible to be served or likely to be affected by the benefit program or service. Agencies should also put in place processes for handling written communication with LEP individuals in less frequently encountered languages

  • In his In his Memorandum for Heads of Federal Agencies regarding the Federal Government's Renewed Commitment to Language Access Obligations Under Executive Order 13166, the Attorney General asked each federal agency to assess, when considering hiring criteria, the extent to which non-English language proficiency would be necessary for particular positions or to fulfill an agency's mission. For example, an agency should determine whether the agency would benefit from including non-English language skills and competence thresholds in certain job vacancy announcements, retention policies, performance appraisals, promotion plans or criteria, and position descriptions.
  • An agency should consider language-sensitive deployment of qualified bilingual staff and interpreters to match skills with language needs. Senior management may also consider establishing appropriate adjustments in assignments and protocols for using bilingual staff who are employed in the agency to ensure that bilingual staff are fully and appropriately utilized.

  • Quality and accuracy of the language assistance service provided by the agency is critical in order to avoid serious consequences to the LEP person and to the agency.
  • Agencies must ensure that all bilingual or contracted personnel who serve as interpreters:
    • Demonstrate proficiency and ability to communicate information accurately in both English and in the other language and identify and employ the appropriate mode of interpreting (e.g. consecutive, simultaneous, summarization, or sight translation);
    • Have knowledge in both languages of any specialized terms or concepts peculiar to the Agency's program or activity and of any particularized vocabulary and phraseology used by the LEP person;
    • Understand and follow confidentiality, impartiality, and ethical rules to the same extent the Division employee for whom they are interpreting and/or to the extent their position requires;
    • Understand and adhere to their role as interpreters without deviating into a role as counselor, legal advisor, or other roles.
  • Bilingual staff who communicate directly in language with LEP persons must also demonstrate proficiency in the target language and have knowledge in both languages of any specialized terms or concepts peculiar to the Agency's program or activity and of any particularized vocabulary and phraseology used by the LEP person.
  • An agency should also ensure that all bilingual or contracted personnel who serve as translators understand the expected reading level of the audience and, where appropriate, have fundamental knowledge about the target language group's vocabulary and phraseology.
  • An agency should periodically check the quality of translations by having a second, independent translator "check" the work of the primary translator. An agency should also consider community input and the use of audits to maintain and improve its ability to provide timely and accurate language assistance.
  • Agencies may consider developing language assessment protocols to ensure that current and prospective bilingual employees who elect to use their language skills as part of their job are appropriately qualified to serve as interpreters or translators.

  • The languages spoken by the LEP individuals with whom the agency has contact determine the languages accommodated by your agency. A distinction should be made, however, between languages that are frequently encountered by an agency and less commonly-encountered languages. Many agencies serve communities in large cities or across the country. They regularly serve LEP persons who speak dozens and sometimes over 100 different languages. To provide language assistance services, both oral and written, to all of those languages may not be possible using in-house resources. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between establishing a system for communicating with LEP individuals who speak frequently-encountered languages (e.g. hiring bilingual staff members) versus enabling access to a telephonic interpretation service for LEP individuals who speak less commonly-encountered languages.
  • The extent of an agency's obligation to provide language assistance services in multiple languages is determined by the agency on a case-by-case basis, looking at the totality of the circumstances in light of four factors:
    • the number or proportion of LEP persons served or encountered in the eligible service population;
    • the frequency with which LEP individuals come in contact with the program;
    • the nature and importance of the program, activity, or service provided by the program; and,
    • the resources available to the agency and costs

  • When an agency cannot meet its language assistance services needs in-house, or when there are case- or management-related reasons to seek non-staff assistance, agencies typically contract with private translation or interpretation firms. An agency must ensure that any contract for language assistance services will specify responsibilities, assign liability, set pay rates, and lay out the ways in which difficulties or disputes are resolved. For example, contracted language assistance service providers must have:
    • qualified and competent translators and interpreters, including mechanisms to ensure confidentiality and avoid conflicts of interest;
    • an ability to meet the agency's demand for interpreters;
    • an ability to meet the agency's demand for translation;
    • reasonable cancellation fees; o on-time service delivery;
    • an acceptable emergency response time; o rational scheduling of qualified interpreters;
    • rapid rates of connection to interpreters via the telephone, electronically, or by video; and,
    • effective complaint resolution when translation or interpretation errors occur.
  • Potential bidders for language assistance services contracts should also be required to commit to an adequate quality control process for all deliverables. This can include a process where multiple linguists review all translations before delivery. Contractors should detail their (and their independent contractors') capabilities with translation memory software. Contractors must also include the discounted prices in their final proposal that would result from using the translation memory software.

  • Staff will not be able to provide meaningful access to LEP individuals if they do not receive training on language access policies and procedures, including how to access language assistance services. For policies and procedures to be effective, new and existing staff should periodically receive training on the content of the language access policy, identifying language access needs, and providing language assistance services to LEP individuals. This staff training should be mandatory for staff who have the potential to interact or communicate with LEP individuals, staff whose job it is to arrange for language support services, and managers. Training should include making procedures clear and readily available to ensure seamless provision of language assistance services.
  • Bilingual staff members who communicate "in-language" to LEP individuals, or who serve as interpreters or translators should be assessed and receive regular training on proper interpreting and translation techniques, ethics, specialized terminology, and other topics as needed. Without regular assessment and training, bilingual staff may not be able to provide the language access services necessary to ensure LEP individuals have meaningful access to your agency's program.

  • An agency may also consider evaluating the actual experience of accessing services from the perspective of an LEP individual. This can be accomplished by managers and supervisors through regular observation of interactions between agency staff and LEP individuals. Periodic client satisfaction surveys may also be used to assess whether LEP individuals are satisfied with the level of service provided to them.
  • Agencies may also maintain partnerships with local community-based organizations and rely upon these connections for reports of inadequate language access or other language-related complaints.

  • An agency must also ensure that its process for receiving feedback from LEP individuals is transparent and accessible to LEP persons. Any LEP individual must be able to communicate his or her comments or suggestions regarding the failure to provide language access or any other agency criticism. And, of course, investigations of such complaints must involve appropriate language assistance services for LEP persons or witnesses.
  • Agencies should maintain a record of feedback received and any resolution based on LEP individual's comments or suggestions.

In his Memorandum for Heads of Federal Agencies regarding the Federal Government's Renewed Commitment to Language Access Obligations Under Executive Order 13166, the Attorney General asked each federal agency to collaborate with other agencies to share translation resources, improve efficiency, standardize federal terminology, and streamline processes for obtaining community feedback on the accuracy and quality of professional translations for mass distribution. This affirms the General Accountability Office's (GAO) April 2010 report on Language Access: Selected Agencies Can Improve Services to Limited English Proficient Persons which notes that collaboration among federal agencies to improve LEP access through planning and providing language access could be enhanced. For example, agreements with other subcomponents, components, or federal agencies can be a cost-effective approach to language assistance services. Many intelligence community components have arrangements with the National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC) to provide translations.

Agencies should prioritize translating vital documents.  A document will be considered vital if it contains information that is critical for accessing the agency’s program or activities, or is required by law.  Vital documents include, but are not limited to:

  • Documents that must be provided by law;
  • Complaint, consent, release or waiver forms;
  • Claim or application forms;
  • Conditions of settlement or resolution agreements;
  • Letters or notices pertaining to the reduction, denial, or termination of services or programs or that require a response from the LEP person;
  • Time-sensitive notice, including notice of hearing, upcoming grand jury or deposition appearance, or other investigation or litigation-related deadlines;
  • Form or written material related to individual rights;
  • Notice of rights, requirements, or responsibilities; and,
  • Notices regarding the availability of free language assistance services for LEP individuals.

In his Memorandum for Heads of Federal Agencies regarding the Federal Government's Renewed Commitment to Language Access Obligations Under Executive Order 13166, the Attorney General stated that, "[w]hen in an emergency or in the course of routine business matters, the success of government efforts to effectively communicate with members of the public depends on the widespread and nondiscriminatory availability of accurate, timely, and vital information." Swift and accurate communication with the general public is critical during major disasters and public-health emergencies. Consequently, an agency should ensure that LEP individuals have meaningful access to disaster-preparedness and emergency information.

  • Providing appropriate access to people with limited English proficiency is one of the requirements for managing your agency's website. An agency may determine how much information it needs to provide in other languages, based on an assessment of its website visitors.
  • Public website content and electronic documents that contain vital information about agency programs and services should be translated into frequently-encountered languages to ensure meaningful access by LEP individuals.
  • The use of machine or automatic translations is strongly discouraged even if a disclaimer is added. If an agency decides to use software-assisted translation, it is important to have the translation reviewed by a qualified language professional before posting it to the website to ensure that the translation correctly communicates the message.
  • In his Memorandum for Heads of Federal Agencies regarding the Federal Government's Renewed Commitment to Language Access Obligations Under Executive Order 13166, the Attorney General asked each federal agency to provide a link to materials posted on your website to the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section so that it can be posted on LEP.gov.
  • More information on building multilingual websites can be found at: https://www.digitalgov.gov/2014/07/01/multilingual-digital-content/