By: Dr. Sally Rim, PT, DPT
Can’t speak English? No worries!
Being bilingual, I have had many opportunities to become comfortable with using different techniques to get my point across, expand non verbal communication, and find ways to explain hard concepts with ease. Even though I can speak Korean, it is not to the point where I can explain medical concepts simply. I have experienced first hand how difficult it is to seek medical attention if you don’t speak the native language of the country that you live in. Early on, my parents would avoid seeking medical help unless there was a staff who knew how to speak Korean.
Avoiding to seek medical help is all too common. Access to healthcare is a challenge with a language barrier because non English speakers have difficulty setting up an appointment. Many individuals don’t set up appointments because they physically can’t speak the language, or due to the fear of not understanding or being understood. Not only that but it may be more costly in terms of time and money depending on the location for those who are non English speakers. For example, there may be fees associated with hiring a professional interpreter.
Being the daughter of an immigrant family, there were many times where I had to play the role of translator for my family and even friends. Looking back today, I am thankful that I was not completely fluent in Korean when I first started translating for my family because it pushed me to find ways to communicate with my limited vocabulary. For patients who may come in with a family member as translator, I know what it feels like to be in his/her shoes. In those situations, I use simple words that I know have the same meaning across different cultures. I try to stay away from online translation apps because I know that understanding a language is “not the same as understanding a culture” (Schyve). I had multiple experiences where words were translated out of context.
As someone who has worked with overcoming language barriers for most of her life, I am comfortable working with patients who do not speak English. Having been in their shoes, I know how frustrating it is to be unable to get your point across and because I know, I offer help to the best of my abilities. I encourage patients to come with a family member who can translate, even if the translator is not fluent in English. It still increases the chances of understanding what the patient is trying to convey. It also involves the family in the patient’s treatment as well. I feel that language barriers do not intimidate me as much as they had before because I found that patients respond well to those making the effort to understand them and learn their culture/language along the way.
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