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India and the U.S. Survey Their Linguistically Diverse Populations
Posted by Nataly Kelly, Vijayalaxmi Hegde on April 14, 2010  in the following blogs: Translation and Localization
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As the U.S. government attempts to count its population of roughly 300 million people, India gets ready to do the same – except it has nearly four times as many people. Two multilingual countries, two major Census initiatives. How exactly do they differ where language is concerned? We take a closer look:
  • Asking the language question. In the past, the U.S. Census asked individuals if they spoke a language other than English at home. No longer. The 2010 Census uses a short form, in which there is no question about language use. Presumably, individuals interested in this data will be able to obtain it from Question #14 of the ongoing American Community Survey instead. India takes the opposite approach – all languages and mother tongues with populations of 10,000 and above are recorded. The 2001 Indian Census found 122 languages and 234 mother tongues among its population.
  • Recognition of native populations. One of the biggest differences between the multilingual compositions of the U.S. and India boils down to whether the language groups are comprised of individuals who are native-born or foreign-born. In the case of India, most linguistic groups were born within the country’s borders. Not so in the United States, a nation of immigrants. However, even some native-born groups in the U.S. are not well-served by their Census Bureau. Even though there are 168,438 U.S. residents who speak Navajo at home, the government does not offer a form in this language. Navajo speakers could try to read an online guide in their language — but thanks to a botched localization job, all they are likely to see is a message that tells them they might need to download special fonts. Oh, and the message that tells them this? It’s only in English, not Navajo.
  • Translated census forms. The 2010 Census for the United States is available in five languages: Chinese (simplified), Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Why these five languages? Apparently, they were determined to be the languages of highest demand, even though the data from the 2005 American Community Survey indicates that more people speak Tagalog and French. In India, the census forms are available in 16 languages — but the form itself can be understood by speakers of many more languages that share the same script. For instance, Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi, and Konkani are all written in the Devanagari script (see “India Beyond English,” May08).
  • Instruction guides. Because the U.S. Census is not available in the languages of large segments of the population, the bureau has created guides that are available “upon request” in 59 languages to help non-English speakers try to figure out how to fill out the form. Unfortunately, most of these guides do not even display properly on the web — as in the example of Navajo above. No matter how good a guide might be, it’s difficult to get people to fill out a form in a language they do not understand. It’s far more likely that they’ll simply elect not to fill it out.
In January, the U.S. government initiated an advertising campaign of US$133 million to try to get individuals to fill out their Census forms regardless of the languages they happen to speak. But, while spending on promotion went up, spending on one of the most basic necessities — making information available in other languages — actually went down. In 1999, the Bureau spent US$483,000 on outsourced translation services — in 2009, spending on the same services dropped to US$51,862 (see “Language Services and the U.S. Federal Government,” Dec09).

Meanwhile in India — a consciously multilingual country — no one thinks twice about recording the census in multiple languages. If the Census were to be done in just one language such as Hindi — spoken by about 41% of the population according to the last census — there would be huge segments of the population unable to respond, and this would be unthinkable. In India – unlike in the United States – multilingualism is broadly accepted by society as a fact of life.

In summary, while India’s Census captures the languages of every group with 10,000 or more speakers, the U.S. Census no longer even asks a language question. And, while pundits in the U.S. continue to argue about the value of even doing a Census at all in spite of a constitutional requirement, India moves forward – multilingually — with one of the most high-tech Census efforts in history, which will capture biometric data, such as photographs, fingerprints, and retinal scans. In other words, in terms of both linguistic and technological complexity, the Indian Census could teach its U.S. counterpart a thing or two.


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