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Language Barriers

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Communication is an essential part of our day to day lives. We use it in almost everything we do. Although effective communication does not guarantee success, its absence usually assures problems. In the U.S. language barriers can create many problems for non-English speaking immigrants that might include, but are certainly not limited to, difficulty finding employment, difficulty obtaining medical care, and difficulty achieving an education. Foreign-born workers are increasingly becoming a fundamental part of the community and the local workforce. The inflow of immigrants into the U.S. has provided both an opportunity for and a challenge to employers to fill many different positions. While many foreign-born workers have acculturated into the workforce, others find it more challenging to overcome language barriers that exist. Language barriers and misunderstandings commonly get in the way of effective communication and create problems in the workplace making it difficult for employers to hire foreign-born workers.

An astonishing number of immigrants, refugees in particular, have a substantial amount of education and experience in their native country, but largely because of their limited English speaking abilities, their credentials and experience may not be recognized (Cultural and Language Barriers, 2002). Another major issue regarding language barriers is medical care. As immigration continues to progress, hospitals, clinics and health-care providers are increasingly confronted with language challenges that can discourage people from seeking medical care and can also lead to catastrophic errors in diagnoses and treatment procedures. Kaiser Health News interviewed Norma Chinchilla, a 26 year old Honduran immigrant. Chinchilla has been living in the U.S. for the past four years but does not speak English. Last year, she experienced the language barrier while trying to make an appointment over the phone for her 2-year-old son. She reached an operator at a hospital who only spoke English and with the few English words she knew she was not able to communicate effectively enough to make an appointment for her child.

According to a 2006 study by Glenn Flores, “Even patients who do manage to obtain care can still fall prey to miscommunication.” In one case, a mother misinterpreted the doctors’ instructions and put antibiotics that were meant to be taken orally in her child’s ears. In another, a doctor who did not fluently speak Spanish interpreted “she hit herself” as “I hit her,” which resulted in the mother unfairly losing custody of her children (Barclay, E. 2009). Language barriers in the classroom have also become a huge problem due to the growing number of immigrant children who do not speak English. Many times non-English speaking students do not get the same educational opportunities as their English speaking peers.

This lack of language equality in schools causes these children to be unsuccessful in their education which in turn can affect them in other areas of their lives. In The Circuit, Francisco Jimenez (1997), the son of Mexican immigrant parents, described his first day of school in the U.S. like this, “Mrs. Scalapino started speaking to the class and I did not understand a word she was saying. . .I thought that perhaps by paying close attention, I would begin to understand, but I did not” (p. 17-18). Language barriers are a major problem in our society today. Our ability to exchange information with others is vital to our success and survival as human beings. We depend on things such as work, medical care, education as well as many other things and without having access to these things we are certainly headed for failure.


Barclay, E. (2009). Speaking the Same Language. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 1, 2010, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/20/AR2009042002466.html Cultural and Language Barriers in the Workplace. (2002). Retrieved November 1, 2010, from http://www.charlotteworks.org/clbpositionpaper.pdf Jimenez, F. (1997). The Circuit. University of New Mexico Press Albuquerque.

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