SALT LAKE CITY — One in 7 Utahns older than age 5 speaks a language other than English in their home, according to a Utah Department of Health report released Wednesday.
And about one-third of those don't speak English very well.
"People may be surprised by the diversity of languages spoken in our state," said Brittney Okada, who works with the state's Office of Health Disparities.
And though the data is new, the report, using information from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009-13 American Community Survey, indicates that Utah’s linguistic demographics may be rapidly evolving.
The top five languages spoken in Utah are English, Spanish, Chinese, German and Navajo. In addition to English, more than 20 languages are commonly spoken in Utah homes, including: Portuguese, French, Vietnamese, Tongan, Samoan, Korean, Japanese, Tagalog, Russian, Italian, Serbo-Croation, Arabic, Nepali, Cambodian and Dutch.
It's the first time the health department has taken an official look at the linguistic diversity in the state, hoping the results will lead to "effective and meaningful communication, which is essential to health services," Okada said.
"There are many languages and many dialects of those different languages, and anything that is impeding communication can prevent the delivery of really good health services," she said. "If we can increase effective communication and provide culturally and linguistically appropriate communication, outcomes will be better."
While interesting to anyone, the data is directed at health care providers and programs throughout the state to help them better understand their patient and client population, plan for language services, evaluate their current language services and improve patient and client interactions, according to the health department.
Okada said the diversity of comprehension throughout the state might make it difficult for many Utahns to successfully navigate complicated systems of health care, the understanding of which is a benefit recommended through Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when population totals are sufficient to warrant a need.
"I know that it is a challenge, especially for those who aren't proficient in English," Okada said. "Language is definitely a barrier to getting appropriate health care."
Nearly 2.2 million Utahns — or 85 percent of the state's residents — use English almost exclusively, while about 10 percent speak Spanish, according to the report. Less than half a percent, but almost 12,000 Utahns speak Chinese as their primary language and a third of a percent speak either German or Navajo.
Pockets of people who speak these languages exist in various areas throughout the state, with the majority of Navajo speakers in San Juan County and other parts of southern Utah. Spanish speakers are most common in Salt Lake and Utah counties, with additional large populations who speak it in Davis, Weber and Cache counties, though it is apparent throughout the state.
"We hope that any health program and providers of health care systems will look at the specific tables for the districts they serve and adjust their services to meet the local needs of the community and really provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services to help provide better health outcomes," Okada said.1 comment on this story
The health department is in the process of determining how often it will recalculate linguistic data for the state. It is also working on evaluating health program and provider compliance with Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services Standards, which are set forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health to ensure health equity among diverse populations and proper delivery of quality services.
Okada said there are certainly areas in the state where providers could benefit from the information, which will help them to better serve local communities.
The full report is available online at health.utah.gov/disparities/class-standards.html under "Translation and Interpretation Resources."