City officials are looking to train anyone who is proficient in English and one of more than a dozen languages, including Cantonese, Arabic, Spanish and Swahili.
Remember those old Rosetta Stone language-learning commercials?
In Denver, people can now turn their bilingual skills into cash — and perhaps a promising future — thanks to a first-of-its-kind program being rolled out by the Denver Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs in which residents will be able to get free interpreter training and a chance at contract work with the city.
DOIRA officials are looking for anyone who is proficient in English and one of more than a dozen listed languages, including Vietnamese, Amharic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, French, Burmese, Karen, Farsi, Somali, Nepali, Korean, Urdu, Haitian Creole, Khmer Armenian and Swahili, and are open to those who speak additional dialects, as well.
With the city welcoming more and more foreign-born residents — including refugees looking for help with local services — the Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs is in need of interpreters. It plans to start training polyglots next month, with classes beginning on August 21 and running for about three weeks.
“The intention is to have community interpreters to respond to the needs of the community,” says Heidi Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Denver Human Rights & Community Partnerships department. “We just want to be able to increase the number of interpreters out there, especially for languages that are not as commonly spoken or there’s no interpreter for them, like Amharic and Arabic and Karen and Nepali and Russian.”
Demand is greatest for Spanish interpreters, Rodriguez notes, because so many of Denver’s non-English-speaking residents hail from Latin America, especially Mexico. However, Denver also suffers from a lack of interpreters for several other languages, including Karen — spoken by people from Burma and Thailand — and Nepali. In recent years, Denver has brought in refugees from Afghanistan and hosted migrants from South America, mainly Venezuela, which has boosted the city’s need for interpretation services, Rodriguez notes.
The City of Denver is taking applications from people who can attend at least thirteen in-person classes during the week in August and early September. Those interested can apply online, with a registration deadline of August 10. Classes will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the days scheduled; meals will be served, and parents can bring their children and leave them with the city’s on-site child-care staff.
“You don’t have to live in the City and County of Denver to apply for this program,” Rodriguez says. “We’re offering this to whoever can apply and be part of these classes, because these are in-person classes again.” Applicants will be asked to pass a proficiency test in both English and their target language.
“We’re trying to incentivize the community members who speak these languages, making it easier for them to become interpreters,” Rodriguez adds. “We just see the need because there are many communities from Mali, our Chinese community and the many Francophone [French-speaking] countries out there. There are many communities like this in Denver, and we want to make sure that we have the interpreters to respond to these needs.”
The City of Denver has a population of more than 700,000; over 100,000 of those residents were born in another country, according to U.S. Census data. As many as 56,000 Denver residents above the age of five speak English “less than very well,” and as many as 260,000 Denver residents — or 37 percent of the population — need interpretation services, the data shows.
“This also helps them financially, too,” Rodriguez points out, noting that the program pays interpreters to register as a small business and that city officials expect to draw from its pool of newly trained facilitators for any future contract work it needs done. “The city does contract out many services of interpretation, so that could be an option in the future. Many of these interpreters might be interested in affiliating with or providing services to what the city needs.”
Graduates from the course receive several grants that will pay the cost to register as a small business with Colorado and the County and City of Denver. Last year, the cost of registering a business in Colorado dropped to $50, which is the same as in Denver.
The DOIRA program stems from former mayor Michael Hancock’s Executive Order 150, which created a citywide Language Access program in December 2022 that makes sure all city agencies can communicate with residents of various backgrounds.
Aurora, which refers to itself as the “World in a City” because of its diverse community, has a similar program called Natural Helpers. It trains immigrant residents to mentor newer arrivals on moving to the United States, learning a new language and eventually establishing a home.
Denver’s program, which is being offered for the first time this year, takes the additional step of teaching people to become business owners through their newfound interpretation skills.
The city hopes the program will not only meet a need in the community, but also help the economy.
“It puts more jobs out there,” Rodriguez concludes. “It is a great opportunity to provide more interpreters in the community.”