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Healthcare Career Tips: Learn a Second Language

A significant portion of the U.S. population does not speak English at home; a number that has tripled since 1980. For individuals not proficient in English, this can create a language barrier that has far-reaching impacts on essential functions of daily life.  For example, in healthcare, studies have shown that non English speaking patients (and those who are hearing-impaired) have less access to preventive medicine.

When only family members are available for interpretation, misunderstanding as well as potential HIPPA violations can have a serious impact on the healthcare services a patient receives.  Having an advocate within the healthcare system that speaks the same language as the patient can go a long way towards lessening that impact.

Growing Job Market for Interpreters and Translators

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau showed that 67.3 million Americans speak a language other than English at home.  Translator services has been a growing market needed to service these individuals.  Between 2019 and 2029, jobs for translators and interpreters are expected to grow by 20%, which translates into an additional 15,500 positions.

As a healthcare professional, being able to speak a second language not only improves care for patients who communicate primarily in that language—it can also improve your career opportunities.

Most Common Non-English Languages Spoken in U.S.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that at least 350 languages are spoken in American homes today.  Though there are differences in the various regions of the country, the most common are:

  • Spanish
  • Arabic
  • Chinese
  • Vietnamese
  • Somali
  • Haitian
  • Hmong
  • Tagalog
  • Russian

There are especially strong opportunities for healthcare workers and translators who have a native-level ability to speak Spanish as it is by far the most widely spoken language in the U.S. other than English.

Benefits for Healthcare Workers to Learn a 2nd Language

Effective communication is essential in healthcare. “For this growing segment of the population, poor health status and diminished access to health care are frequent challenges,” states the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

Translation/interpretation services provided to Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals in healthcare settings may be formal or informal. They can range from professional interpreter services to a bilingual family member or a staff member acting as translator.

The ideal scenario—although not necessarily feasible as metropolitan hospitals can encounter dozens of different languages—is for a healthcare professional, knowledgeable with the patient’s condition, to be able to communicate in the language in which that patient understands.

Thus, if you are currently pursuing a or working in a healthcare career, becoming fluent in a second language will undoubtedly help you stand out from the competition.

Learning a foreign language

Learning a foreign language can help further your healthcare career.

Patient Care

But it’s more than just being a prime candidate for job offers. A healthcare provider may not be able to help patients as effectively if there is a language barrier. Carolina Amoruso, in a Winter 2011 Diversity Employers Magazine article, shared this instance: “The Wall Street Journal Online, for example, cites an incident where a doctor, unable to properly communicate with a patient, mistook
his shortness of breath for an anxiety attack when, in fact, the patient was suffering from diabetic ketoacidosis, a complication of diabetes that could have caused a coma”.

Additionally, speaking in a patient’s primary language can help them relax and understand the medical procedures being performed on them. When trying to comfort patient anxiety during the treatment process, it is very helpful for someone, especially professional medical staff, to speak the same language as the patient.  The results are obvious: patients will be more apt to return to the healthcare provider where comfort and communication were highest and thus establishing a long relationship.

Job Opportunities

Wherever you live, learning a second language will be a great asset to your healthcare career.

The Migration Policy Institute cited that in 2016, 77% of LEP individuals in the U.S. spoke Spanish, so you might want to become proficient in that language first. But it also depends on the demographics of where you are working. For example, if you will be working in a healthcare facility near San Francisco’s Chinatown, you would probably benefit from learning some basic Chinese.


Online Tools and Educational Programs

Research local and online universities/organizations to find out about second language or foreign language courses—some are offered specifically for healthcare professionals.

You might also consider completing a language immersion program in another country. For example, the Baja California Language College offers a Medical Spanish Program in Ensenada, Mexico. Or the National Registration Center for Study Abroad advertises numerous medical language programs in countries such as Bolivia, Spain, Ecuador, Mexico and Costa Rica.

There are also a countless number of language resources online. One example specifically related to healthcare is the Medical Chinese Online Teaching Module created by the New York University School of Medicine.

Learning a second language can be amazingly fun, particularly if you choose to immerse yourself in opportunities so you practice speaking and experience another culture, from attending the Spanish and Flamenco Festival in Tucson, Arizona to the Taste of Polonia in Chicago, Illinois.

Reach out to a cultural club offered in your community or at a local school to see if you can be teamed up with a language partner; they could help you with their native language and you could potentially help them with English. Who knows, a long time friendship could form.

Learning another language will not only help you professionally. It will also allow you to immerse in some new and exciting experiences and most importantly provide quality care to a more diverse array of patients.

National Center for Biotechnology Information: Language Barrier Study
Center for Immigration Studies, October 2019 article
Office of English Language Acquisition
Migration Policy Institute

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