2013-03-07 / Local & State

Highlights Of Pennsylvania's Language Diversity

By Kevin Begos


PITTSBURGH (AP) – Pennsylvania faces cultural and linguistic challenges in trying to bring health care changes to limited-English speakers and hard-to-reach populations.

About 1.1 million Pennsylvania residents spoke a language other than English at home, according to a fiveyear Census Bureau survey that ended in 2011. That's about 9.5 percent of the population.

One challenges for state officials who are trying to implement President Barack Obama’s sweeping health care overhaul is to deliver its message to non- English speakers. That is especially true in states with large and diverse immigrant populations.

Dozens of groups in Pennsylvania say they speak English less than very well. The largest group is about 196,000 Spanish speakers. Chinese is a distant second at about 36,000 speaker, followed by about 29,500 speakers of Ger- man and related languages, 23,600 speaking Vietnamese and 17,400 speaking Russian.

Those totals don’t represent the most recent immigrants or regional concentrations.

For example, in Philadelphia, about 54,000 Spanishspeaking residents spoke English at levels below very well, along with 16,000 Chinese speakers, and 2,300 speakers each of Korean and Arabic. In Allegheny County, 4,200 Spanish speakers speak English less than very well, along with 3,300 Chinese, 1,200 Russians and 1,100 Korean speakers.

The challenge of caring for people who don't speak English well is broader than any changes that may come from the federal health care overhaul, one expert said.

“It will be the same kind of challenges,” said Patricia Documet, the scientific director of the Center for Health Equity at the University of Pittsburgh.

Documet said the new law won't change the situation of people who are undocumented. But if a significant number of people who speak a different language show up at certain hospitals, “then the hospitals will have to change.” That could mean hiring translators or using phone lines, which she said are useful but not ideal.

She also said that just because there's a new law doesn't mean people who don't speak English will know about it.

“It's a very mobile population. Informing people of their rights is difficult,” Documet said, adding that the new law “will be one more thing that people don't know.”

“It's not only the language, it's how do you reach the people,” she said of the broader challenge of providing health care.

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