Beyond English: Utahns, officials don't always speak the same language
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Forty-year-old Mahamud Guled can't read his electricity bill, job applications or food labels at the grocery store.

The Somalian refugee, who moved to Utah with his family less than a year ago, doesn't know much English. He speaks Maimai, an African tribal language, and depends on his 20-year-old nephew to translate for him.

"It's hard for me," Guled says through his nephew. "It's not OK to be in the United States and not know English."

Guled is one of the roughly 133,000 people - or 16 percent of the population - in Salt Lake County who speak a language other than English at home, according to 2000 census data compiled by the Modern Language Association.

Salt Lake City and County government officials say they recognize the growing number of families who don't speak English and are trying their best to accommodate them when they seek public services.

About 2,000 county residents speak an African language around the kitchen table.

Guled, a full-time hotel dishwasher, says he wants to learn English, but it's difficult for him to enroll in a class when he can't get a set work schedule. Still, he says he can follow orders from English-speaking managers - sometimes, with help from his Maimai-speaking co-workers.

"I can understand, but I can't reply," he says.

Despite the diverse number of languages spoken around the county, a state law declares English the official language of Utah. The measure was approved by voters in 2000.

Under the law, state, county and city offices are not required to provide information or hold meetings in any language other than English.

"If they choose to put it in another language, that's fine, but it's not 'official,' " says Jerrold Jensen, an assistant state attorney general.

Most of the time, residents who need information bring in a friend or family member to translate, officials say.

"We might not be able to help them right away, but we'd try very hard to find a translator," says Deeda Seed, Mayor Rocky Anderson's spokeswoman.

If a translator is needed, city workers turn to a list of 72 bilingual employees, about half of whom speak Spanish. But even though 25 percent of the city's residents don't speak English, only 2 percent of employees speak another language. In West Valley City, where about 1-in-4 people don't speak English, no one keeps track of the number of employees who are bilingual, says Aaron Crim, the city's spokesman. The city does employ one full-time Spanish translator and is trying to recruit employees who are bilingual. "It can be a challenge, but we've been able to overcome it," he says of the city's growing number of non-English speaking families. "All we can do is deal with it as it comes."

On the east side of the county, where roughly 90 percent of residents speak English at home, at least one city official says translators are not necessary.

Maridene Hancock, a spokeswoman for Draper, says the city has about 100 employees and about eight of them are bilingual, including two who speak Spanish. It's rare for city departments to need translators, but there is a growing need for Spanish translators in the court system, she says.

Law enforcement officials say the need for translating services has increased the past several years, but it hasn't affected the response time of emergency services.

Gigi Smith, a training supervisor at the Salt Lake County sheriff's dispatch office, says there are about 43 county sheriff's dispatchers and a handful of them speak another language. Three speak Spanish.

When there is an emergency, there usually is someone in the house - a child, family member or neighbor - who knows English and can translate during a 911 call, Smith says. Still, she says, law enforcement officers and an ambulance are sent to the scene immediately, regardless of whether the caller knows English.

"We already have people going out, even if we don't know what [language] it is," Smith says. "We're concerned because you never want anything to happen."

If dispatchers can't understand the language during a call, they call a telephone company's translation service, which the department has used for more than 15 years, Smith says. The county spends about $700 a month on the service, says Marita Haddan, the sheriff's dispatch manager.

Detective Kevin Joiner, a Salt Lake City Police Department spokesman, says officers rarely have problems with people who don't know English because there always is someone around who can translate.

"I've never not been able to finish a job because of a language barrier," Joiner says of his 10 years of working on the city's streets.

Officers know some Spanish because they are required to take a "street-Spanish class" as part of their basic training, Joiner says. He also says 55 - or 14 percent - of the department's roughly 400 officers are bilingual. But if the department can't find an officer that speaks the language that is needed at a scene, it uses a phone-based translation service.

For Guled, a father of seven kids, emergencies are the last thing on his mind.

He says he knows how to dial "911" for help and would probably get a friend to translate. Guled, who makes $6 an hour, says he is not worried about dealing with a language barrier during an emergency because he's got bigger concerns, such as getting a higher-paying job, finding a way to learn English and providing for his children.

"I came here to get a very good life and to get these kids very educated," he says.

jsanchez@sltrib.com