National Center for State Courts language access work helps Ethiopians in DC Courts

DC Courts are "Open to All, Trusted by All, Justice for All"

English aside, Spanish and American Sign Language are used more often than any other language in District of Columbia Superior Court. The next most used language? We’ll give you 100 guesses, and you still won’t get it. It’s Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, spoken by less than three million people outside that African nation.

NCSC’s language access team is wrapping up its training of Amharic oral exam raters, the final piece of a two-year project funded by the State Justice Institute. As part of the project, the team also created an Amharic-English legal glossary and a full oral exam for Amharic court interpreters.

Ethiopians began moving to D.C. and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs in the mid-1970s, during a period of civil unrest in their homeland, and the migration continues to this day. The region has Amharic language newspapers, an Ethiopian Yellow Pages and dozens of Ethiopian-owned businesses, including Ethiopian Airlines’ U.S. headquarters and dozens of Ethiopian restaurants.

“The unique concentration in the Washington, D.C., area of Amharic-speaking Ethiopians requires modifications to eliminate language barriers in court and to gain the community’s confidence,” said Konstantina Vagenas, director of NCSC’s Access to Justice Initiatives. “We believe this project will help overcome language barriers and also ease existing misperceptions of racial or ethnic bias in the courts.”

D.C. Superior Court officials recognized a few years ago that Amharic speakers needed excellent interpretation services. The court created an interpreter registry, which established minimum testing and training requirements to qualify Amharic interpreters, and it developed an annual Amharic skills-building workshop and, in conjunction with NCSC, an Amharic court interpreter certification exam.

“NCSC’s work in collaborating with us to develop the certification exam has been invaluable,” said Sharon Ruiz, coordinator of the court’s Court Interpreting Services & Language Access Program. “It will ensure that Amharic speakers who use the court will receive the help they need to accurately communicate with judges and court employees and improve access to justice for Amharic speakers. They can be assured that they have a voice and that their voices are being heard and understood.”

NCSC’s language access team is working on many other projects. One involves expanding the New Mexico Judiciary Administrative Office of the Courts’ scribing program, which helps self-represented court users with limited English proficiency fill out forms. This project, which also includes developing training modules for scribing volunteers, makes perfect sense for New Mexico, where about 36 percent of the population speaks a language other than English and nearly 20 percent live below the poverty line and can’t afford to hire lawyers. 

To learn more about NCSC’s language access work, visit its web page.