Skip to main content

Languages at UW-Madison

Home > News > Everyone's Right to Language Access

Everyone's Right to Language Access

Photo: The language access team at Farm Technology Days in Kewaunee, WI, last July.

Photo: The language access team at Farm Technology Days in Kewaunee, WI, last July.
Carlos Miranda, Language Access Project Manager (left)
Giselle Martinez Negrette, Communications Intern (center)
Dominic Ledesma, Language Access Coordinator (right)


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Long before he began working as a bilingual associate educator for the Minneapolis Public Schools, UW-Madison alumnus Dominic Ledesma knew the importance of language learning. Ledesma always viewed language learning as a life-long commitment that required passion and responsibility. It wasn’t until he saw the impact of language learning on other people, however, that he realized the importance of language access.

After earning a masters in Language Interpretation and Translation from the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara in Mexico, Ledesma returned to the States as a bilingual associate educator for schools in Minneapolis. There, he saw how the inability to understand fully and communicate because of language difference can lead to discrimination.

He remembers a specific moment where language access – and everyone’s right to it – clicked for him. A student’s parent requested a meeting with the principal. When it was clear to Ledesma that the parent didn’t understand what the principal was saying, he began to interpret, and what he saw made him realize the powers of language access.

The parent’s entire demeanor changed. Rather than the principal holding all the power, due to the language barrier between the parent and the principal, the power became more evenly distributed to the parent once Ledesma translated. The parent simply wanted to understand, and once that happened, the dynamics of the conversation shifted. This process is what Ledesma refers to as providing “equal footing” in the communication process. It helps empower persons with limited English proficiency.

Ledesma said he often saw situations like this during his time with the school system.  Parents are prevented from fully understanding what’s happening with their child.

 “[The parents] don’t feel welcomed, they don’t feel understood. They don’t feel like they belong,” Ledesma said. “It’s not that they don‘t want to be involved with their child’s education and important decisions to make. It’s not that they don’t want to communicate with administration, but at the same time, they feel like it’s their responsibility to speak English well enough to communicate with the schools.”

Now Ledesma has returned to Madison, the city where he earned his undergraduate degree, and has been coordinating the Language Access and Support Initiative for the UW-Extension since 2016. As UW Cooperative Extension’s Language Access Coordinator, Ledesma works to provide necessary language accommodations during their educational programming. His core responsibilities include managing translation projects, interpretation, project consultation, community engagement and ensuring Title VI compliance for language access. 

He works diligently through his everyday activities to help colleagues create linguistically inclusive learning environments and in the process, he helps community members understand that language has the ability to discriminate. Language access is necessary, Ledesma said, to ensure that equality is available for everyone.


What Exactly Is Language Access?

On their website, Cooperative Extension defines language access as “the strategic and systematic management of multilingual communication within different contexts and across various scales of delivery.” In short, language access helps ensure that people across the state of Wisconsin have the ability to diminish communication obstacles caused by language differences.

One aspect of language access that Ledesma stresses with great importance is its legal obligations. Any federally-funded program, school, organization, court system, hospital or entity is required, by law, to provide language access services. These services include translation and interpretation for persons with limited English proficiency (LEP). Ledesma pointed out that individuals can be discriminated against due to their primary language. Similarly, organizations can engage in discriminatory practices if their services are ill equipped or under prepared to serve a multilingual public. If someone cannot speak English fluently, they might not be able to access the same services in the U.S. as a fluent English-speaker.

Language discrimination is protected against in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. As Ledesma puts it, language is a dimension of identity and a protected status that falls under the national origin section (which also includes race and ethnicity) under the Civil Rights Act. Ledesma said that the legality of language access is not commonly known fact.

“While often misunderstood and less visible in the public eye, the issue of ‘language access’ is tied to individual language rights in the U.S. and accounts for a critical piece of the Civil Rights legacy,” Ledesma said.

To make the legality of language access clear, Ledesma draws on a well-known analogy. When people enter the front of a building and notice a wheelchair ramp, they don’t question why it’s there. They usually go “oh, it’s there because it’s required by law so all people can access the building,” Ledesma said. The same thought-process can be applied to language access. When a translator or translated poster is present, it’s because they are required by law so all people have full access to the information, program or service at hand.  


Language Access in Action

Language access isn’t as much of a visible concern on UW’s campus as it is in other parts of the state. Ledesma said students won’t typically see issues with language access on campus, mostly because it’s a university campus and the population here is already selective and unique. However, members of the UW community should still keep language access in mind.  

“It is important because we all need to understand the ways in which our society and country are culturally and linguistically diverse,” Ledesma said.

Ledesma said language competency and use is associated with privilege, which is why he works hard to use language to ensure equity to services and programs. Part of Ledesma’s job is to coordinate translation and interpretation services through the educational programming that takes place throughout the state.

In practice, this coordination means sourcing interpreters, providing materials and training in a multi-lingual format, translating materials and consulting on projects to make sure they are both linguistically and culturally appropriate.

To help visualize this process, Ledesma used the agricultural industry as an example. There are a large number of Spanish-speakers working in agriculture in the state of Wisconsin. Since agriculture workers often need to operate large, heavy and potentially dangerous equipment to perform their job duties, it is vital for them to understand the machinery. The federal government even mandates some safety trainings. The language difference becomes a communication barrier, which is where Ledesma finds a way to provide training to these workers in a multi-lingual setting.

In order to train workers in multi-lingual setting, there are several key steps to include. First, it’s important to offer visuals and text  both in Spanish (for the case of some agricultural workers) and in English. In this learning environment, the workers can decide to focus on Spanish or English depending on which language they prefer.

Second, training occurs in both Spanish and English. While the instructor speaks English using a Spanish PowerPoint visual presentation, there are interpreters present to interpret the lesson into Spanish. Every worker is equipped with headsets so they can follow along in either language.Ledesma also mentioned that interpretation isn’t as simple as it seems. He stressed that translation and interpretation services are more nuanced than they appear, often requiring consultation to make sure the translation is culturally appropriate.

“You can’t just say, ‘Oh here’s our product. Now turn it into Spanish,” Ledesma said. “It’s more nuanced than that. In some cases, the communication is a little bit more complex.” Likewise, becoming a professional translator or interpreter requires a high level of professionalism, advanced training to develop the specialized skills required for providing services, and a strong grounding in ethical issues.


Language Learning

In addition to his skills as a Language Access Coordinator, Ledesma also speaks three languages: English, Italian and Spanish. He said being tri-lingual shaped the way he sees the world.

When he studied abroad in Italy for a year, he realized that language has a power.

“Language gives you a vehicle to access other cultures, other people and other worlds,” Ledesma said. “It’s like your own set of keys to the world.”

For current UW students, Ledesma encourages them to study another language during their four years here. Most importantly, he said, students should continue to preserve maintain and use their language skills so they can help make the surrounding communities more robust.

For more information on Cooperative Extension’s Language Access and Support program, please visit 


Story by Emily Curtis, Language Institute