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  • Brittany Chan

Lost in Translation: The Lingering Challenge of Unresolved Language Barriers in Today's Interconnected World

Picture this:

You are an 11-year-old second-generation immigrant from Vietnam, born and raised here in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Your mum has been feeling very sick and needs to visit the general practitioner to get a referral. She doesn’t speak Dutch though, and neither does your dad. What would you do?  

The obvious answer:

You would accompany your mum to the clinic and hope that a professional interpreter will be arranged to tackle the language barrier.

Is this the case though?

Though this seems like a no-brainer, many first-generation immigrants are not offered such help. Second-generation immigrants (AKA children of first-gen immigrants who speak fluent Dutch) are often relied on instead and act as ‘informal translators’ in medical consultations. You can argue that this brings benefits to the growth of a child; after all, it is the hardships we go through that drive growth, right? But what if your mum was not diagnosed with a simple stomach flu? What if it was intestinal cancer instead? How would you tell your mum this (without any knowledge of cancer) while feeling frantic, anxious, and scared?

Despite knowing that it’s hard for second-gen children to bear the responsibilities, interviews with twenty-seven healthcare providers– ranging from specialists, GPs, and psychologists – showed that they primarily do not see tackling language barriers as their priority. What’s important for them is to ensure that they have gotten the information across – be it patients’ diagnoses or treatment-related behaviors – but how this is done is considered out of their reach. Because of this, results pointed out that healthcare providers barely use any verified language-supporting methods (think professional interpreters or translation apps). Instead, they often resorted to ‘comfortable’ choices. They are either by 1) adjusting their communication style, such as speaking slowly, making shorter sentences, or avoiding medical jargon, or 2) involving informal translators, who are unfortunately often (young) children of these first-gen migrant patients. But whether these methods are reliable is of course questionable. If a person knows zero Dutch, no matter how slowly or how many times a doctor repeats the same Dutch phrase, they will not understand it. Likewise, if the informal translator happens to be a young child, they are likely to have insufficient knowledge to translate everyday information, let alone medical information.

So, what should be done?

Addressing language barriers requires a collaborative effort from both migrant patients and healthcare providers. Empowering first-gen migrants and their children with awareness about the availability of free interpreting services is crucial as it ensures that they can easily access the support they need. Simultaneously, healthcare providers must undergo a transformative process, recognizing the profound impact language barriers have on not only the informational but also emotional aspects of patient care. They must adopt new communicative behaviors tailored for medical consultations with migrant patients. Establishing comprehensive guidelines will serve as a roadmap, fostering a more inclusive and compassionate healthcare environment for all. By bridging the linguistic gap together, we can pave the way for healthier, happier lives for migrant communities.

Brittany Chan is a PhD Candidate at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam. Her project has two focuses: 1) on uncovering how language barriers can be mitigated between healthcare providers and migrant patients 2) the development of a digital decision-aid aimed at helping healthcare providers and migrant patients to make joint, personalised decisions with mitigating language barriers.


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