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Five ways banks and lenders work with people who speak or understand limited English

More than one out of every 12 people over the age of five in the U.S. are limited English proficient (LEP), meaning that they speak English less than very well, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey One-Year Estimates. LEP consumers may find it difficult to access financial products and services.

Today, we are releasing a report to share some current practices and raise awareness about issues that many LEP consumers face when participating in the financial marketplace.

The CFPB’s prior work has indicated that many of the challenges LEP consumers encounter are often related to language access and financial literacy. Financial disclosures and written documents may not be available in languages other than English. These documents can be technical and difficult to understand, even for proficient English speakers.

LEP consumers may also face challenges with completing key financial documents, managing bank accounts, resolving problems with financial products, and accessing financial education. 

Identifying ways to improve how services are provided to LEP consumers can benefit both consumers and entities providing financial products and services.

Five common themes 

In seeking to learn more about entities’ practices in this area, we spoke with a number of financial institutions of varying sizes about how they serve LEP consumers. It is important to note that the practices described in this report are not exhaustive and that this document is not intended to interpret federal consumer financial law or any other statute or rule and should not be construed as a mandate, guidance, or a requirement. These are five common steps that some financial institutions told us they have taken to better serve LEP consumers.

Assessing the language needs of consumers

Many institutions that we spoke with indicated that they review demographic data about the areas they serve from various sources—such as the U.S. Census Bureau—to determine their customers’ likely language preferences. Some institutions with a national footprint largely focus their resources on building out capabilities to serve Spanish-speaking consumers, while regional institutions told us that they may align their language-focused resources with local demographics.

Providing centralized technical support for language-related initiatives

Many larger institutions that provide language services told us that they have a central point of contact that provides internal technical assistance to the institution’s employees on any language-related initiatives. Depending on the institution, some functions of the central point of contact may include:

  • Annually reviewing processes and procedures for using non-English languages
  • Evaluating which areas of business would most benefit from LEP services
  • Developing quality control mechanisms
  • Establishing translation and interpretation policies

Developing translation and interpretation systems 

Most of the larger institutions that provide language services told us that they have systems for written translation and verbal interpretation to help ensure consistency and accuracy. Many of these institutions translate for meaning, rather than word-for-word, and use back-translation. Back-translation involves taking a translated document and having another party translate it back to English. These activities validate third-party translations. Financial institutions also told us that they use internal or external bilingual glossaries to keep terms consistent throughout translations. Some institutions use various technological solutions to assist with translations and interpretations, and sometimes they use third-party vendors.

Training staff and contractors in language and cultural competencies

Institutions that provide language services reported that they use various methods to ensure that staff and contractors have the necessary language and cultural understanding to serve LEP consumers. Some institutions hire employees with foreign language fluency, cultural competency, and financial expertise. These institutions told us that they often require either an internal or external certification for written and verbal competency. Institutions that rely primarily on third-party translators or interpreters often retain some language experts on staff to provide quality control.

Offering platforms for interacting with LEP consumers

Institutions that provide language services shared a range of approaches that they use when they interact with LEP consumers in their preferred language in different settings. Many institutions provide verbal interpretation via phone and multiple language settings on their digital services and access points. Most of the institutions reported that their written contracts or agreements were available only in English.

How we can help

The CFPB is working to help all consumers, including non- and limited English-speaking consumers, navigate the financial marketplace. Our U.S.-based contact centers provide services to consumers in more than 180 languages. We also have free printable financial education materials in up to nine languages, including English and Spanish. Among those resources is our Your Home Loan Toolkit, which provides a step-by-step guide to shopping for a mortgage and buying a home. Some of the available resources from the CFPB and others include:

We also offer clear, impartial answers to hundreds of common financial questions in English and in Spanish. We invite you to explore our Spanish-language site or check us out on Twitter and on Facebook .

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