Dana Vidrine, director of the mother and baby unit at Woman’s Hospital, remembers back when one of her patients mistakenly wrote a $200 check to pay for a circumcision … for her newborn daughter.
At the root of the mixup was a language barrier: The Spanish-speaking patient, who had limited English proficiency, and the hospital’s English-speaking front desk staff, who collected the payment and did not understand Spanish, were unable to communicate effectively, causing the patient to purchase a service she didn’t need. Eventually, Woman’s refunded the patient.
Vidrine remedied the situation using Language Line Solutions—a service the hospital has been using for some 15 years, offering written, signed, video, phone and on-site language interpretation services for non-English speaking patients and their families. It’s a need that Vidrine says has grown dramatically in Baton Rouge, especially in the past year.
“Initially, it was more nurse-driven, but now almost all of the departments are using it,” she says. “We don’t have enough bilingual staff to meet the needs of our patients.”
Since more recently rolling out Interpreter on Wheels—a portable system that includes an iPad and speakers for video calling—Woman’s has seen marked success, with hospital workers saying it has built trust between patient and medical provider amid a rising demand for the service.
In 2018 alone, 17,152 video calls were interpreted, with a total of 47 languages utilized throughout the year. The most often-used was Spanish, with 16,108 video calls made last year. That doesn’t count the 9,992 over-the-phone audio calls that were interpreted using the service.
“Effective communication is the biggest way to make sure patients are taken care of—it’s part of the continuum of care,” says Phyllis Covert, call center manager. “As new technology comes up, we’ll be using that as well.”
The hospital’s Language Line marks one example of how more Baton Rouge businesses are trying to accommodate their increasingly foreign language-speaking clients—particularly those speaking Spanish—as the demographics of the city are evolving and its population of those where English is not their native language is rising.
An estimated 18,800 people living in Baton Rouge who are at least 5 years old speak a language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census statistics from 2013-2017, accounting for 8.5% of the city’s population. That’s just above the statewide average of 8.3%, but it’s nowhere near the one-in-five U.S. residents who fit the profile across the country.
The local trend is part of a nationwide demographic shift. By the year 2045, the under-30 U.S. population is expected to be “majority minority,” or mostly nonwhite. By 2050, the U.S. is projected to be the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, according to the Cervantes Institute.
Not long ago, bilingual employees were seen as workplace assets, giving companies a competitive edge in terms of attracting clients and landing contracts on international deals. Now, expanded language offerings are practically a necessity for the domestic operations of Baton Rouge companies that serve a wide and diverse customer base, such as hospitals and telecommunications companies.
Cox Communications’ call centers for people with disabilities are bilingual, says Jennifer Cobb Earnest, director of diversity products for the Atlanta-headquartered Cox Southeast, which covers Baton Rouge.
Before taking on her current role with the company—overseeing inclusive product design for people with disabilities—Earnest was part of a Cox effort 10 years ago to translate its website to Spanish, which included a bilingual overhaul of its chat agents. The telecommunications company also has a Hispanic team, which focuses exclusively on products and services for its growing Spanish-speaking clientele, such as language-specific content programming and channel packages.
“Customers are definitely able to communicate with us in their language of choice,” says Earnest, adding Cox also offers manuals in Braille—which is the same in English and Spanish—to customers who are visually impaired.
On the other hand, some smaller mom-and-pop businesses see the trend as an opportunity to teach immigrants English, wanting to integrate them into the local business scene with an advantage. It’s the approach taken by Lighthouse Coffee, which currently employs four U.S. immigrants who are nonnative English-speakers.
After years teaching English at the church she attends as well as the Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement department, Lighthouse owner and manager Amber Elworth says she’s found it a best practice to let her English-learning employees figure out answers for themselves.
“The English learner learns best when they can make mistakes and figure it out—not when they’re corrected before they understand their mistake,” Elworth says. “I have dry-erase markers that I use to write on our kitchen equipment and even on our walls to teach, taking time to correct them in the moment versus letting them continue their bad habits of mistakes.”
Other local establishments are expanding their language offerings for other business reasons. To enhance the international visitor experience and attract more tourists, the LSU Rural Life Museum has added 50 handheld devices that offer visitors guided audio tours of different exhibits and artifacts in English, French, German and Spanish, with additional options for Japanese and Cantonese in the works.
While the wand-like devices were purchased by the museum primarily to accommodate international tourists, Bill Stark, the museum’s associate director, says they’ve also been used by in-state visitors whose preferred language is not English. Anecdotally, the museum—which distinguishes visitors by whether they are from Louisiana or out-of-state—has noticed Spanish is the top-requested language from in-state foreign language speakers.
More than anything, Stark says, the wands have helped the museum reach its bottom line by offering a more on-demand, efficient alternative to guided tours in foreign languages.
“We deal with the rural Louisiana Gulf Coast, which is something many people aren’t already familiar with, and that can sometimes be on top of a language barrier,” Stark says. “This helps us bridge that gap. We haven’t set about it so much as a money-maker as an indirect driver of visitation.”