It did not take long after President Biden was officially inaugurated for the Spanish version of the White House website to be promptly reactivated. The decision was as predictable as it was meaningful. It reversed one of the very first actions by the previous administration—disabling the Spanish version of the website, which had existed continually since the George W. Bush presidency. (Interestingly, Trump’s White House communications team did keep the @LaCasaBlanca handle on Twitter to post sporadic announcements in Spanish.)
It is early to tell what the language policies of the Biden administration will be, but we have already seen other welcome changes, too. Most notably, after firefighter Andrea Hall delivered the Pledge of Allegiance at the Inauguration simultaneously in English and ASL, White House press briefings are now accompanied by livestreamed ASL interpreting (which has already seen its share of controversy over the far-right links of the first interpreter). It’s also offering closed-captioning on its YouTube channel. All of this signals a commitment to equity and transparency, and to taking the needs of language minorities and the disability community seriously.
We have the example of the former presidency to understand what seemingly small decisions like language accessibility reveal about larger policies. In hindsight, Trump’s English-only website foreshadowed the former administration’s purposefully neglectful language policies, whose low points included the crisis of the lack of qualified translators in the Southern border and the lack of updated public health information in commonly spoken languages during the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis.
White House website aside, communication between the government and its citizens continues to be mostly in English. Other than Housing and Urban Development and the Department of the Treasury (partially), the websites for Cabinet-level departments do not offer easily accessible versions in Spanish, much less other languages. Agencies like the IRS, a unit in the Department of Treasury, and the Employment Benefits Security Administration, at the Department of Labor, do a better job providing Spanish versions of their services, but the majority are still English-only.
In truth, nothing but good will—and a lame-duck Obama-era memorandum on website accessibility—really compels government agencies to go multilingual. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination of any kind, and Executive Order 13166, which expands the 1964 Civil Rights Act to improve access to public services for people with limited English proficiency, guarantee that federal services provide free language assistance to individuals who request it. Some department websites, including the Department of Education or even the Office for Civil Rights that oversees this provision, point visitors toward this federally mandated language service assistance. Any U.S. citizen who has helped an elderly relative emigrate to the United States, for instance, will be familiar with this service, which allows the presence of an interpreter during the residency and citizenship application process.
Ultimately, volunteering public information in other languages depends on the whim of a given agency. A Nov. 8, 2016, memorandum by the Office of Management and Budget spells out recommendations for website accessibility and urges federal agencies to use the guidance provided in Executive Order 13166 to determine what and how much of their website content to offer in other languages. But its impact during the Trump administration was limited.
All in all, it is astounding how little information the government makes available in other languages, given how present linguistic diversity is our daily life. State and local websites have long been offering multilingual versions of their websites; even if those translations, powered by third-party automatic translators, are often unreliable, at least they try to meet citizens halfway. In many parts of the country, it has been common to see signage for COVID-19 prevention in multiple languages, not just English and Spanish. Dual language immersion schools have flourished in the last decade, having recovered from the legislative setbacks to bilingual education in the 1990s. Linguists and language teachers have been working with linguistic landscapes in their research and class projects for years.
Let me nod, begrudgingly, to those who would argue that we should not encumber our institutions with the burden of multilingualism since anybody who lives here should learn English. Here is why multilingual accessibility in our institutions matters. For starters, multilingualism is not a threat to English—just about everybody who has migrated here knows they will be better off learning English. There will always be someone who needs language assistance. The newly-arrived refugee who needs language assistance today to navigate, say, the education system for their kids, may no longer need that assistance five, 10, or 20 years from now, but there will always be some other newly arrived family who will. In fact, withholding support, linguistic or otherwise, is far more likely to create persistent inequality than it is to accelerate integration, however defined. Finally, English speakers will not be hindered from getting information in their language because, say, Spanish or Haitian Creole speakers have to jump through fewer hoops to get the same information in theirs.
There is another reason why it matters that the current administration is gesturing toward civic multilingualism. Spurred by a president who exploited anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim, hate incidents, including harassment of Spanish speakers, kept growing during the Trump years. The trend is unlikely to reverse overnight, but if nothing else, it is a welcome change that the new government models more inclusive language policies.
What would those policies look like? For starters, it would be great if more agencies followed in the steps of the White House website. And while they are at it, it would be even better if more languages were added to the list. The IRS website, available in seven languages, is a good model to follow. The legal tools to expand multilingual outreach across federal agencies already exist. Revising or at least pushing for a more consistent implementation of the Obama-era memorandum on accessibility would go a long way towards achieving that goal. Digital.gov provides a series a of resources and best practice guidance for multilingual web design.
At the time of the Democratic Party primaries, much was made of the fact that a record number of candidates spoke more than one language. In the end, it was Joe Biden, who does not speak other languages and who has in the past expressed fairly run-of-the-mill assimilationist views on language and migration, who won the nomination and, eventually, the presidency.
Just as well. It matters less whether president speaks Spanish or Arabic or Korean. What matters is that he (and someday she) adopts language policies that strengthen unity across communities, one federal agency and one website at a time.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.