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7 tips for communicating with patients who don’t speak English

Nurse talking to non English-speaking patient

As a nurse, being able to communicate effectively with patients allows you to do your job better. Compassionate care, after all, gets to the very heart of nursing and why many health care professionals choose the field. So how do you go about overcoming the communication barrier when you and a patient don’t share the same language? Or, how do you talk with someone who suffered a stroke and has limited ability to speak? Here are seven tips that can help you communicate with patients who don’t speak English.

1. Identify the language gap and build trust

Some people won’t want to speak because they fear not being able to get their point across.

Christy Copensky, a progressive care nurse for patients with stroke and neurological issues, says, “For me, sometimes it’s a matter of trying to figure out first if they can speak. Then what language they speak and going from there.”

As a nurse practicing in Florida, she often provides care for patients who don’t speak English and strives to help these patients feel at ease. She recognizes that they’re already feeling vulnerable because of a medical issue, and the communication barrier can make things worse. Once a language barrier is identified, it becomes a matter of building trust so that effective communication can still happen.

2. Use Google Translate

Once you assess the situation and have put your patient at ease, consider using Google Translate or another language translation app on you smartphone. It is a simple way to get a conversation going. Copensky says, “I rely on Google Translate first to at least introduce myself and do the very basics of who I am and what I’m here to do.”

Although the translation might not be perfect, you can usually get the message across. “I think it’s always been a benefit rather than a hindrance for me,” Copensky adds.

3. Use a professional interpreter to convey medical information

Even though you can do a lot with translation aids, an approved medical interpreter is a must when you have to relay medical information.

“Anything regarding their diagnosis, orders, surgery, their medicine prescription, any paperwork requiring consent, it all has to be documented,” Copensky explains. “That should all go through an interpreter approved by the hospital as legally required. Even if your fellow nurse speaks Spanish, for example, and you call her/him in to explain, that technically is not the right way to relay information that needs documentation.”

Nurse talking to a patient who doesn't speak English

4. Learn key phrases

Even though documentation must go through an approved interpreter, getting to that point requires flexibility and the willingness to put patients at ease. It helps if you can learn key phrases in the most common languages you encounter in your area. Words and phrases like “sit down,” “turn over,” “eat,” “drink,” “pain,” and “where” can go a long way.

“Especially if you walk into a patient’s room, and they’re crying and you don’t communicate with the same language, you can ask, ‘Are you in pain?’ And they can point or say, ‘Yes,’” Copensky explains.

4. Mind nonverbal cues and be compassionate

“Your visual facial expressions are important — like smiling, and not raising your voice,” Copensky says. “If you’re giving positive nonverbal cues, then it definitely makes them feel as if you’re at least a friend.”

She adds, “Sometimes we think that because a person speaks a different language, that they don’t hear well, which is not the case.”

5. Mime things out

“Act out requests. If you want them to take the medication and drink, sometimes you’ll show them,” Copensky says. Another example is acting out how to use the call button and other important must-knows.

6. Use gestures

With stroke patients, Copensky says they often understand what you’re saying but can’t speak well. Instead, she encourages them to use gestures to communicate their needs.

This approach can be helpful when navigating different languages too. “When it comes to a foreign language, they point a lot to things, so maybe they’re thirsty and they’ll point to a cup and then point to their mouth, for example.”

7. Consider the role cultural differences play

Cultural differences can affect the way you communicate. For example, many cultures, and even older generations, may get offended if healthcare workers address them by their first name. Err on the side of caution. Also, some cultures tend to bring many additional family members to appointments or to the emergency department. Remain flexible and respectful of these cultural differences.

Putting it all together

These tips to communicate better with patients who don’t speak English can help you become a better nurse and caregiver. Try them out next time you care for patients whose native language is different from yours and see what a difference it makes!

What are your tips for communicating with patients who don’t speak English? Share in the comments below.

About the author

Kari Redfield

Kari Redfield is a professional content marketing writer. She also is a novelist and writes for newsstand magazines and has had work appear in publications such as Arizona Highways, Sedona Magazine, and American Fitness. And like the travel nurses profiled in these stories, she loves the flexibility and new experiences that her unique job provides, and loves to travel. She has been known to spend weeks in the U.S. West in her Aliner, checking out classic trad rock climbs, epic mountain bike rides, and other adventures while writing from the road.

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