Language Access Program

Download a flyer about the Language Access Program. (Right-click, then select, "Save link as..." and save to your computer.)

Mayor Tim Burgess signing the 2017 Language Access Executive Order.

On October 2, 2017, Mayor Tim Burgess signed Executive Order 2017-10 pertaining to language access.

The City of Seattle's vision is that all residents, regardless of their proficiency in English, should have meaningful access to City programs, services, and activities.

Through its Language Access program, OIRA collaborates with City departments to ensure that English language learners are able to access the information and services they need and that departments are able to effectively serve them. The City has a goal of becoming a national leader in immigrant integration and a model for language access.

The updated Language Access Executive Order along with the soon to come Language Access Plan is the next step forward from the 2007 Executive Order, a necessary component of the City's Race and Social Justice Initiative goals. These actions help the City address new access and equity challenges resulting from Seattle's growth and increasing diversity over the last decade.

Language Access Plan Next Steps

The executive order directs City departments to update and prioritize implementation of the Language Access Program by taking the following steps:

  1. The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA) has provided departments with a Language Access Plan Template and a Language Access Toolkit to guide development of department-level language access plans.
  2. Each department has submitted a Language Access Plan for 2019 to the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs for review and transmittal to the mayor for approval.
  3. Starting with the 2019 Budget, each department will prioritize a portion of its existing annual budget to begin implementation of its Language Access Plan.
  4. OIRA shall provide departments with technical assistance for language access and prioritize departments leading labor, contract, environment, resilience strategy, equitable development, successful aging, and equitable outreach and inclusive public participation programs. The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs shall also prioritize technical assistance to departments involved in responding to health-related emergencies, refugee relief, disaster preparedness, response, recovery programs, and other crisis situations.
  5. During a crisis, emergency, or public safety situation, all affected departments shall make it a priority to offer language access services and, when feasible, ensure bilingual staff are present and available to assist English language learner (ELL) residents with critical language needs.
  6. If a crisis, emergency, or public safety situation requires the conspicuous posting of warning signs, the relevant department must translate those signs into the appropriate primary and emerging languages according to neighborhood demographics.
  7. Annually, OIRA shall update the list of primary and emerging languages based on the best available data, including the American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.


Two Seattle residents share their stories in Spanish.

Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Language Access Program Oversight

OIRA is responsible for the following Language Access Program oversight duties:

  1. Work with departments to finalize Language Access Plans before they are transmitted to the Mayor for approval.
  2. Provide technical assistance for language services to all departments, including training department staff.
  3. Provide strategic guidance about working with English-language learner residents to departments, the City Council, and the Mayor's Office.
  4. Aid departments, City Council, and the Mayor's Office in identifying bilingual staff.
  5. Oversee, update, and maintain a web portal that includes a directory of qualified language service providers, sample interpretation service contracts, a repository of departments' translated documents, and a Language Access Toolkit.
  6. Provide departments with model Language Access Plans.

Seattle Top Tier Languages

We gathered data points from the America Community Survey (ACS), Seattle Public Schools (SPS), Public Health-Seattle & King County, Seattle Police Department, and Seattle Municipal Court Interpreter Services on the most commonly spoken non-English languages by City residents. Based on the data, we suggest the following languages as Seattle's top tier languages for communicating city-wide programs and services. These languages are broken into three tiers. We prioritize languages that are used by larger populations, residents with limited English proficiency, and recent immigrants and refugees. In partnership with the City's Demographer, OIRA will update the data and recommendation once every three years.

Languages are listed in order of increasing to decreasing prevalence within Seattle city boundaries.

  • Tier 1 - Should include: Traditional Chinese*, Spanish, Vietnamese, Somali, Amharic, Korean, Tagalog
  • Tier 2 - If feasible, include: Tigrinya, Oromo, Japanese, Russian
  • Tier 3 - Consider including: Arabic, Khmer, Thai, Laotian

*There are two primary Chinese writing systems: Traditional and Simplified Chinese. The two systems are mutually intelligible. Considering the composition of Seattle's Chinese language users and their English proficiency, we recommend translating into Traditional Chinese for written materials. For oral interpretation, we should include both Cantonese and Mandarin.

Download the full report here

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Members of Seattle's East African community chat at a forum.


Banner photo credit: Alabastro Photography.