Language Access

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 immigrant and refugee residents are able to access the information and services they need and that departments are able to effectively serve them. All residents, regardless of their proficiency in English, should have meaningful access to City programs, services, and activities.

Through its Language Access program, OIRA will collaborate with City departments to ensure that immigrants and refugees who are not proficient in English 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 adoption of the Language Access Plan for the City of Seattle will provide a much stronger vehicle than the previous 2007 Executive Order to move all City departments along a path to be able to incorporate language access as a way of doing business in the city.

2017 Language Access Plan Outcomes

Presenter talking with Ready to Work participants.

  • Improve service to Seattle's increasingly diverse population;
  • Expand readiness to communicate with English-limited communities in times of emergency or disaster;
  • Cost savings through administrative efficiencies and more strategic/coordinated use of City resources; and
  • Deeper relationships with residents and community-based organizations through improved interactions.

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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. By December 29, 2017, the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs shall provide departments with a Language Access Plan Template and a Language Access Toolkit to guide development of department-level language access plans.
  2. By March 31, 2018, each department shall submit 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. The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs 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 Limited English Proficient (LEP) 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, the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs 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.

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Two Seattle residents share their stories in Spanish.

Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Language Access Program Oversight

The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs 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 LEP 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.

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Seattle Top Tier Languages

Primary languages are languages other than English spoken by the largest number of Seattle residents, based upon data for the U.S. Census, American Community Survey, Seattle Public Schools, Seattle Municipal Court, and City of Seattle Customer Service Bureaus. These languages are broken into two tiers. The first tier includes the top seven languages spoken in Seattle, and the second tier includes languages spoken by at least 2,000 Seattle residents.

Seattle Tier 1 Languages

  1. Cantonese (written: Traditional Chinese)
  2. Korean
  3. Mandarin (written: Simplified Chinese)
  4. Somali
  5. Spanish
  6. Tagalog
  7. Vietnamese

Seattle Tier 2 Languages

  1. Amharic
  2. Cambodian/Khmer
  3. Laotian
  4. Oromo
  5. Russian
  6. Thai
  7. Tigrinya
Members of Seattle's East African community chat at a forum.

Find Out More

For more information, contact Language Access Specialist Maha Jahshan at (206) 615-0195 or

Banner photo credit: Nate Gowdy Photography.