Why Healthcare Professionals Need To Be Bilingual

healthcare professionals need languages

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Our world is becoming increasingly connected. Technology has helped to expose many of us to cultures we wouldn’t have had access to just a couple of decades earlier. International travel has also become less expensive, opening up a world of tourism and immigration to more of us.

Increased international travel brings with it the challenges of communication. Many countries outside the U.S. have excellent education systems and teach English as a second language.  However, there are still those travelers who may struggle with some complex conversations. As a result, there is an increased need for bilingual professionals in all industries.

Healthcare is one of the primary sectors that requires skilled linguists. The industry is responsible for the wellbeing of all members of the public, regardless of their own linguistic ability. We’re going to take a look at why bilingual staff are vital in healthcare, alongside tools and methods that are available to those professionals ready to upskill their communication abilities.

Growing Demand

Healthcare workers with bilingual abilities are needed from the outset of care. The description of symptoms, completion of registration paperwork, and any necessary outlining of medical history are essential elements of the first contact that can affect standards of care. This extends beyond the patient’s own ability to express their medical issues. Mistranslated diagnoses and the treatments available may seriously impact not just the illnesses patients experience, but their freedom to make informed choices about their treatment.

Some medical facilities have also begun to adopt software platforms that allow patients and doctors to communicate via written forms. These platforms, like that in the linked resource, improve efficiency by permitting engagement via text messaging and email. However, the adoption of such platforms must take into account the patient’s linguistic needs, with options to communicate in the language of their choice. Bilingual healthcare workers in administration and treatment areas can be useful in providing and reviewing such written communications.

A lack of linguists in healthcare is not just an ethical or technical issue, it has the potential to pose a serious danger. We only need to look at the COVID-19 crisis to see how insufficient communication can also have detrimental effects during public health emergencies. A recent ProPublica report highlighted the difficulties already overwhelmed medical staff have had accessing interpretation services, with some resorting to services with spotty accuracy, such as Google Translate. One of the major tools in the fight against any pandemic is concise medical messaging, and the ability to communicate efficiently with patients. Healthcare workers who are able to provide their expert guidance in multiple languages are key tools in providing diverse communities with advice that could halt further spread of disease.

Choices and Platforms

Having established the general need for linguists, it’s worth exploring how healthcare professionals can go about learning effectively. The first step is choosing the language itself. Perhaps the most appropriate way to make this choice is by reviewing the current needs of the healthcare system in the U.S. Spanish is currently the most widely spoken language in America other than English; therefore, Spanish language speakers can help a larger number of patients. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has also identified the rest of the top 5 languages spoken by those with limited English proficiency as:

● Chinese
● Vietnamese
● Korean
● Arabic

It’s also worth considering the level of proficiency that is appropriate for your position. In many medical fields, 100% fluency is desired, if not essential. In that case, it may be suitable to take a formal language course. However, gaining a conversational understanding can certainly help impact communication barriers that help cause the inequality of services non-native speakers face. Traditional language schools can provide structured courses to meet your specific goals, but if, like many medical professionals, your free time is at a minimum, it can be worth looking into self-guided learning.

Low-cost and free technologically-supported language learning software models can provide you with the basic tools to start learning on a schedule of your choosing. Rosetta Stone and Babbel have been mainstays in linguistics for some time. Apps such as Duolingo, which can be used on a smartphone, allow learners to take bite-sized lessons when they have a spare moment during a commute, or break times at work. Many smartphones also have built-in functions that can assist in language learning practice, including utilizing the audio recording function to capture spoken phrases, so that learners can play back the results and identify areas of progress, and those in need of improvement.

Tips for Language Learning for Healthcare

There are certainly some generalized tips and approaches that you can take when learning a language. However, there are also some specific ideas that are worth bearing in mind to optimize your learning for a career in healthcare.

● Find opportunities to engage in conversations on the subjects that you’ll be speaking most about. Look to connect with other healthcare professionals who are native speakers of the language in order to build both confidence and ability. One of the common mistakes learners make is being embarrassed about the potential for errors in their conversational skills; yet, this is a natural part of the learning process. Have conversations, try to learn from those errors.

● Seek to understand the culture linked to the language. There are aspects of every language that have specific cultural contexts, and faux pas that should be avoided. There is an increasing need for transcultural nursing skills, with masters programs that even focus on this concept; these can help you gain insight into how to apply cultural sensitivity alongside your linguistic skills, in order to overcome language barriers more effectively.

● Spend some time with a medical interpreter, in order to gain some knowledge of the common linguistic challenges you might face. This can help to provide you some insight into what skills are most useful for you to develop, and areas you need to work on.


Healthcare workers with multilingual abilities help ensure that all those requiring medical attention have the right to receive competent, expert care. Professionals can take advantage of formal courses and masters programs with recognized qualifications, or utilize accessible applications for more flexible learning. By committing to a deeper understanding of the culture alongside the language, healthcare professionals can not only be more accessible but also gain a more rewarding linguistic experience.
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