Does the term Limited English Proficient need rethinking?

As we were reading the Summer 2023 issue of Proteus (a great issue, by the way), we were both struck by an article entitled “Are we comfortable telling someone that they are limited because English is not their language?”, written by Ingrid Oseguera, an experienced court, medical, and community interpreter. “Is there a negative connotation when we use the acronym LEP (Limited English Proficiency)?” asked the author; “How do you feel about this term?” (p. 13). Her sense is that it does have a negative connotation and is a euphemism for people in need of interpreting, invented “to avoid referring to them as a person who simply does not speak English” (p. 13).

Oseguera also cited her students, who said that they wouldn’t like being identified as LEP because it would make them feel uncomfortable and lower their self-esteem. It is not clear, however, whether students whose English was either native or fluent enough to explore Language Access laws were the best audience for such a hypothetical. How would they respond to the same question involving their foreign language in, say, Russian, French, or Japanese? Do Americans compelled to appear in foreign courts bristle when called a limited speaker of Russian or Japanese, or do they embrace a designation that entitles them to the services of an interpreter?

Twisting the hypothetical just a tad reminds us that what matters here is not the connotation, which, in any case, is idiosyncratic. We, for one, do not think of ‘limited’ as negative, only as precise, a good descriptor of Janis’s French and Portuguese or Aneta’s Spanish and French – sufficient to order meals and enjoy movies and books, but woefully inadequate to deal with the court of law. What matters to us is the protective function of the term. It is key to remember that the term LEP did NOT evolve to designate people who do not speak English – their need for an interpreter is apparent from the start. The problem was – and still is! – a common misconception among judges that English proficiency is an all-or-none thing: one either speaks English or does not, and if one can answer basic questions about their name and birth date, one doesn’t need an interpreter. The pioneering nature of the Executive Order 13166, signed by President Clinton in 2000, is in pushing the government and the justice system to recognize that people who speak some English still require “language assistance that results in accurate, timely, and effective communication at no cost to the LEP individual” (p. 3).

Having said this, we recognize that the desire to change terms is a good-faith effort. We thank our colleague for raising the issue and bringing to the attention of Proteus readers the article by Ortega, Shin, and Martinez (2022) that deems the notion of a ‘primary language’ ethnocentric, the idea of ‘limited ability’ ambiguous, and the construct of ‘language assistance’ deficit oriented. Unfortunately, their proposed alternatives, such as ‘non-English-preference’ or ‘multilingual learners,’ may work in education but are too fuzzy for legal contexts. In the eyes of a busy judge, a ‘preference’ does not justify interpreting costs in the way limited English does. Their proposal to outsource healthcare communication to clinicians who speak the same language as the patients is similarly unworkable in the court of law. The purpose of the classifier LEP is not to isolate or to denigrate but to identify those who cannot communicate in all registers and to provide equalizing measures so that they could enjoy the same benefits and privileges as those who speak fluent English. Why are we making LEP and ‘language assistance’ into a bad thing?

Our own answer is that the term LEP doesn’t require rethinking: it is enshrined in government documents that serve as a legal framework for language access (, it is widely adopted by law enforcement, the court of law, and legal scholars, and it clearly identifies the concern that some people have insufficient English skills to comprehend legal language. Fiddling with terms in this case is a detour from real change. What is disconcerting to us is that nowadays some LEP speakers still go through trials without an interpreter (e.g., Commonwealth v. Diaz, 2020). To promote social justice, we need to advocate for institutional changes, including provision of qualified interpreters in police interrogation, improvements in implementation of Language Access plans, and professional development that constantly reminds defense attorneys and judges that ‘some’ English isn’t enough to meaningfully assist in one’s own defense.


Ortega, P., Shin, T. & G. Martinez (2022) Rethinking the term “Limited English proficiency” to improve language-appropriate healthcare for all. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 24, 799-805.

Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over twenty years in federal, state, and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is currently the past Chair of the NAJIT Board of Directors. Contact:

Aneta Pavlenko is a Research Professor with the Department of Communication at Drexel University, Philadelphia, and Past President of the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL). Her research examines the relationship between multilingualism, cognition, and emotions, including in legal contexts. She testified in several court cases as an expert in forensic linguistics and co-chaired, with Diana Eades, the international Communication of Rights Group that produced the Guidelines for communicating rights to non-native speakers of English in Australia, England and Wales, and the USA (2015). Her studies of comprehension of the Miranda warnings by non-native speakers of English received the 2009 TESOL award for Distinguished Research and the 2021 AAAL Research article award. In 2023, she received the AAAL Distinguished Scholarship and Service Award. Contact: 

Featured image (cropped) from “El papel de la terminología en la traducción” by SUSANNAPUJOLCLI at DE BABILONIA CON AMOR, under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. Text body photo by Vanessa Garcia from Pexels.

One thought on “Does the term Limited English Proficient need rethinking?”

  1. Georganne Weller says:

    Excellent reflections, thanks so much. As a linguist I too think this term’s life span is over.

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