According to 2000 U.S. Census figures, 17.9% of the U.S. population (47 million people) speak a language other than English at home. In fact, from 1980 to 2000, the number of people in the United States who speak a language other than English at home doubled.U.S. Census projections issued in 2004 state these numbers will continue to trend upward. The current number of Asian people living in the United States is 3.6% of the population. In California, this jumps to 10.9%. And the 2004 U.S. Census projections predict the percentage of Asian people in the United States will grow over time.

In addition to demographic and market pressures nudging insurance companies to think about how to better communicate with non-English-speaking customers, legislation may soon force them to do so.

In 2004, California passed SB 853, a bill that requires health care insurers to assess the linguistic needs of their enrollee population, and, based on population criteria, provide translation of vital documents such as consent forms, letters regarding eligibility and participation criteria, and notices pertaining to the denial, reduction, modification or termination of services and benefits.

A key point of the legislation is that it does not require translation to a specific language but to the most prevalent languages-after English within a given population group.

California SB 853 may be the first of many such bills to be proposed in legislatures across the United States, but it won't be the last. Organizations across a number of vertical markets, including the service providers that process data and create documents on behalf of these organizations, will need to implement strategies that meet these market and legislative demands.

DIVERSITY EQUALS CHALLENGE

The more diverse the population base and languages spoken, the greater the challenge. On computer systems, languages such as English, Spanish and French are known as single-byte languages. That means that software supporting these languages uses single-byte character sets (SBCS) to represent one character.

With most software solutions, there are up to 256 different characters that can be represented at any time. SBCS solutions work for a large percentage of the population. But there is a growing population segment that may not be reached by SBCS-based software solutions.

Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages have more than 256 characters. In addition, many of these characters are too complex to represent using a single byte of data; they require two bytes of information-referred to as double-byte character set (DBCS). These languages also require special keyboards or a language emulator to enable end users to create text in a document.

To meet this challenge, organizations can consider an enterprise document creation system that produces multi-lingual documents for both single- and double-byte languages. Some software providers tout their Unicode enablement and use this as "proof" of the ability to support Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages.

However, Unicode is simply an industry standard that provides a single method for all languages to be encoded for use by computers. Both single- and double-byte data use Unicode. A solution that is "Unicode-enabled" is not necessarily capable of handling double-byte characters when it comes to text entry and printing.

SINGLE-PLATFORM APPROACH

Software that supports both SBCS and DBCS enables you to create personalized, language-relevant documents using a single design; integrates with your existing data sources and systems easily; enables marketing and business users to maintain documents and create rules-driven messages that are incorporated into communications at run time; and supports multi-channel delivery according to business and customer preferences.

With this single-platform approach, you can reduce document-production costs by as much as 80%, get to market with critical communications up to 85% faster and triple customer response rates.

Enterprises have a unique opportunity to differentiate themselves and improve relationships with an expanding segment of their customers. But doing so requires having the right software and processes in place-a solution that enables you to create unique communication to connect with you customers, regardless of language or delivery channel, while also reducing costs.

Michael Kaminski is product manager at Exstream Software Inc., Lexington, Ky.

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