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Found in translation: Pasco's shifting demographics

NEW PORT RICHEY — Let's say you have to go to the courthouse here to pay a traffic ticket but you speak only . . . Swahili. That's fine. The clerks are now ready to work with you.

Let's say you speak . . . Hindi. Also fine. Still ready.

Turkish?

Yep.

Thai?

Yep.

Mongolian? Tagalog? Haitian Creole?

Even those.

The office of the Pasco County Clerk of the Circuit Court for the past month or so has been using Language Line Services' over-the-phone translations to help handle the increasingly diverse population in these parts. That includes more and more people who the company calls "limited English speakers." Any transaction conducted by the Pasco court clerks — records requests, child support payments, jury duty matters — now can be done in many languages that are not English.

This can be a small story or it can be a big story.

Small: The clerk of the court started this service on Oct. 22. Since then, it has been used 37 times — 36 calls in Spanish, one in Mandarin Chinese.

Big: Those 37 calls are a piece of data that provides a glimpse into the coming major shift in demographics. The county is changing, and so is the country as a whole, and fast.

By 2050, according to the most recent Census projections, minorities in the United States won't be, well, minorities. Minorities will make up a majority. The Hispanic population is expected to triple. More than 55-million people in the country already speak a language other than English at home. A new immigrant arrives every 19 seconds.

It's the big shift.

Here it comes.

People who live in Florida who were born in a foreign country? Who speak a foreign language at home? Those numbers are doing nothing but going up.

Ditto in Pasco in particular.

In Florida, in 2000, 23.1 percent of the population spoke a foreign language at home. That number was 25.7 percent in 2006. The percent of the state's population that was foreign-born in 2000 was 16.7 percent. It was almost 19 percent in 2006.

Hispanics made up not quite 17 percent of the state's population in 2000. They made up more than 20 percent in 2006.

Pasco traditionally has been much whiter than Florida as a whole, and still is, but the percentages are climbing here, too.

Foreign-born? From 7 percent in 2000 to 9.3 percent in 2006.

Speak a foreign language at home? From 10.3 percent to 12.7 percent.

The Hispanic population? From 5.7 percent to 9.1 percent.

Speaking of change

Language Line Services, based in Monterey, Calif., has been around since 1984. The company's first client was the police department in San Jose, and it has had cops and courts as clients ever since. Language Line now has approximately 25,000 clients, according to spokesman Dale Hansman, including hospitals, airports, grocery stores, credit card companies and 75 percent of the Fortune 500 companies. The company has 5,000 translators who speak 176 languages.

The economy is hurting. Not Language Line. Language Line is growing. The number of calls is going up. The number of clients is going up.

"It's not a novelty," Hansman said last week. "It's a necessity."

In Pasco, public transportation uses language line, the libraries use it, the 911 call center uses it, the sheriff's office uses it.

In the clerk's office, the expectation was that Language Line would be used maybe 10 times a month, said Paula O'Neil, who recently was elected as the clerk of the court.

Nope.

Almost 40.

In only the first month.

"I would anticipate that it would grow," said Cecelia Sulinski, the supervisor of the traffic violations department in New Port Richey.

Before Language Line, Sulinski said, clerks would ask a "limited English speaker" if he or she had a friend or a family member who could come to the courthouse to help translate. That was an imperfect solution. Who knew what was getting across and what wasn't?

Now all the clerks are trained to use Language Line. The clerk picks up one phone receiver, the customer picks up another and the translator comes on from wherever — from a call center in Panama or Costa Rica or Chicago or London, or from his or her own home in Texas or California — and the clerk and the customer can communicate. The calls cost $1.80 a minute. The clerk's office picks up the tab.

"It's a small price to pay to give a person the right information," O'Neil said. "This is an affordable way to provide that customer service."

In Vietnamese.

In Yoruba.

In Punjabi or Polish or Finnish or Danish or Romanian or Hungarian or French or Spanish or Czech or Greek or . . . .

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

By the numbers

10.3 Percent of Pasco residents in 2000 who spoke a foreign language at home.

12.7 Percent of Pasco residents in 2006 who spoke a foreign language at home.

36 Pasco residents who needed Spanish translation within the past month at the courthouse.

1 Pasco resident who needed Mandarin Chinese translation within the past month at the courthouse.

Found in translation: Pasco's shifting demographics 11/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 4, 2008 1:39pm]
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