If English isn't your first language, the slew of credit card reforms that kick in Feb. 22 may be just more confusing information to sort through in your struggle to build a solid financial future.

But how much does the ability to speak English affect the desire or ability to participate in the American banking system? That's what Congress aims to find out with a new study.

A provision of the Credit CARD Act of 2009 mandates that the Government Accountability Office's Comptroller General examine whether there is a relationship between English proficiency and financial literacy and if so, how non-English speakers in the United States are affected by that in carrying out financial transactions. The report is due no later than May 22.

Alicia Puente Cackley, the director in charge of the report, says her staff is analyzing the issue by reviewing studies, interviewing leaders who work with limited-English-proficiency (LEP) populations and conducting focus groups with LEP consumers to hear their perspective about what role language plays in their ability to open financial accounts or enter into investments.

"We recognize that there are other issues that come into play, but we're focusing on language," she says. "We're trying to be geographically diverse and language diverse, so we won't be focusing on just one language."

Huge jump in non-English-speaking population
The number of people who speak a language other than English at home grew by 38 percent in the '80s and 47 percent in the '90s, according to Census data. Numbers are expected to balloon again when 2010 figures come in for non-English speakers, the vast majority of whom are Hispanic.

Studies show that Hispanics are much less likely than Caucasians to own a credit card, but more likely to carry a balance if they do have plastic. The Federal Reserve Bank 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances found that only 58 percent of Latinos had a credit card in 2008 as opposed to 73 percent of Caucasians. But 48.4 percent of Latinos carried debt vs. 46.1 percent of Caucasians. The report also found a large gap of wealth between Caucasians and Hispanics.

Janis Bowdler, a deputy director of the civil rights and advocacy group National Council of La Raza, and one of the people consulted in writing the Credit CARD Act, says the GAO report will help find out the best way to "ensure that those for whom English is not their first language get what they need in order to be eyes-wide-open, savvy consumers."

Figuring out what that will take is an urgent concern as the immigrant population grows and the financial landscape becomes more complex. A March 2009 Mintel report "Hispanic Finances and Financial Services" found that a third of Hispanics (33 percent) say that they "know nothing about financial services/investments," a higher percentage than non-Hispanics (25 percent). But the number characterizing their financial literacy that way did not vary greatly between those who spoke only English or only Spanish at home. Thirty-four percent of those in Hispanic households that preferred only English at home made that statement; 36 percent of those in Hispanic households that preferred only Spanish made that statement. The report polled 7,614 Hispanics 18 or older from July 2007 to September 2008.

"Certainly the fact that someone doesn't speak English (as a first language) is a challenge when they enter the financial marketplace, and we see a lot of fraud and scams targeted toward ESL consumers," Bowdler says. "But I would dispute that if a person were only to speak English better that they would automatically become savvy consumers. Even if you are fully fluent, you are dealing with some very complicated issues."

Many Latinos lack access to credit
Bowdler wrote the January 2010 La Raza report, "Survival Spending: The Role of Credit Cards in Hispanic Households," which found that Latino families need better access to more fairly priced and transparent credit. Among its recommendations were: building a financial counseling network with public-private partnerships and investments in "starter credit" with affordable secured cards and small loans that report to credit bureaus.

The FDIC is wrapping up a two-year pilot project to encourage banks to offer such short-term, small-dollar loans of under $2,500 to low-income Americans, many of whom have low or no credit scores. The goal is to help unbanked or underbanked Americans avoid quick-cash loans with high fees. An FDIC survey released in December 2009 showed 19.3 percent of Hispanics had no checking or savings accounts and 24 percent of Hispanics fell into the "underbanked" category -- those who have checking accounts but use alternative services such as payday loans or overdraft programs.

Helping immigrant populations move away from those high-priced alternatives often works best with one-on-one counseling, Bowdler says. La Raza works with 55 community groups throughout the country and the free services offered are available in English and Spanish and other languages as the region demands.

Bowdler said one provision La Raza pushed for unsuccessfully in the credit card legislation required that credit reports be available in a language other than English. Like banks, credit report agencies are not required by law to do business in a language other than English.

Some creditors, including many of the larger banks, do offer services in Spanish. Bank of America and Citi, for instance, offer complete Spanish versions of their Web sites; Chase customers can get statements, card member agreements and all official communication in Spanish.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is even stepping up its efforts in this area. The regulator recently partnered with Spanish-language TV network Univision  to launch a consumer financial education campaign for U.S. Hispanic consumers. According to the OCC's release, they will work with Univision to "develop short public service announcements, or PSAs, that provide information on personal finance issues, such as avoiding foreclosure scams and check fraud, and understanding reverse mortgages."

Changing the face of credit counseling
The growth in the Hispanic community that is slowly changing the banking industry is also changing the credit counseling industry.

Gail Cunningham, vice president of public relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, says the number of people the foundation served in the Hispanic community (for needs including counseling on debt, housing and bankruptcy) doubled from 124,946 in 2007 to 250,112 in 2008.

In Orlando, InCharge Debt Solutions just hired 12 bilingual debt counselors in January in the bankruptcy division who work exclusively with Spanish-speaking clients. That changed the English-to-Spanish speaking ratio for debt counselors in that division from 80/20 to 60/40.

Mark Hoewing, public relations manager for the firm, says the number of clients requesting Spanish-speaking counselors went up 4 percent at InCharge in 2009. But he said addressing language struggles is only one reason for adding bilingual staff. The bigger reason, he said, is that the Hispanic population is underserved.

"We looked at the organizations that have services for people with debt problems, and they haven't done as much to reach the Spanish-speaking people as they have to reach the English-speaking people. We saw the need for those services."

Help may also be found in another part of the Credit CARD Act that mandates that creditors offer toll-free contact information for credit-counseling agencies on their customer statements each month. Cunningham said the NFCC worked with creditors to help them comply with this portion of the act. The counselors are vetted through the U.S. Trustee Program, which offers help in 20 languages and can connect callers with their language preference somewhere in the nation.

More than just a language problem?
But extending language help alone won't fix the problems of the American banking system in reaching the unbanked and underbanked, La Raza's Bowdler says. She expects the GAO report, which will be submitted to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs of the Senate and the House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, to assess the most effective ways to help make the banking system accessible to all.

Previous studies have found that Hispanics don't have enough access to competitive interest rates and are forced to pay exorbitant rates. A 2007 La Raza study cited data showing that 12.9 percent of Hispanics have a credit card interest rate greater than 20 percent. Just 7.5 percent of Caucasians had cards with a rate that high.

"We need a well-regulated industry with low-income products that make sense for that community," Bowdler says. "The system needs to work whether or not your first language is English."

More from CreditCards.com: