Language Access Program

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


Why the City of Seattle Prioritizes 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.

Language access is a necessary component of the City's Race and Social Justice Initiative goals. Our work helps the City address new access and equity challenges resulting from Seattle's growth and the city's increasing diversity over the last decade.

Learn more about the recent work of Language Access Program and Policy Specialist Peggy Liao from this Migration Policy Institute article: Practitioner's Corner: Centralizing Translation Across Agencies Through Computer Assisted Translation (2021).

With one in five Seattle residents speaking a language other than English at home, the pandemic highlighted the stark disparities in access to key services and information for immigrant and refugee residents. The crisis also presented the city with the challenge of creating a more resilient and robust translation system that all city departments can leverage to generate in-language content efficiently and systematically.


Two young Black women, one wearing a head scarf and the other wearing a hijab are sitting behind a table inside of a room talking to a Black community member who is smiling as she looks at the resources available on top of the table.

The Work of the City's Language Access Program

Executive Order 2017-10 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 Latina women, each holding a baby, appear to be talking to someone next to a sign that reads: "Spanish".

How the Language Access Program Provides 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.


2023 Seattle Top Languages Other Than English

We gathered data points from the American Community Survey (ACS), Seattle Public Schools (SPS), Public Health-Seattle & King County, Seattle Police Department, Seattle Immigration Court Cases, Seattle Housing Authority, and Seattle Municipal Court Interpreter Services on most spoken or requested non-English languages. Based on the data, we suggest the following languages as Seattle's top languages for communicating city-wide programs and services. These recommendations prioritize languages that are used by larger populations, residents with limited English proficiency, and recent immigrants and refugees in Seattle. The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will update the data and recommendations once every three years in partnership with the City demographer.

Below are the top 15 languages in order of highest prevalence:

1. Spanish
2. Chinese*
3. Vietnamese
4. Somali
5. Tagalog
6. Korean
7. Amharic
8. Russian
9. Japanese
10. Tigrinya
11. Arabic
12. Oromo
13. Hindi
14. French
15. Ukrainian

*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

Banner photo credit: Alabastro Photography.

Immigrant and Refugee Affairs

Hamdi Mohamed, Director
Address: 700 5th Ave, Suite 1616, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94573, Seattle, WA, 98124
Phone: (206) 727-8515

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The mission of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs is to improve the lives of Seattle’s immigrant and refugee communities by engaging them in decisions about the City of Seattle’s future and improving the City’s programs and services to meet the needs of all constituents.