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Language Needs of Population Served

Abstract and Keywords

Language mediates every aspect of social work, and the ability to communicate effectively with and about clients is a paramount responsibility that rests with the social worker. This responsibility extends to clients who do not speak, understand, read, or write fluently in the dominant language, either because they speak other languages or because of communication-related disabilities. This category may include individuals with learning disabilities, speech disorders, aphasia, autism spectrum disorders, specific language impairment, and physical impairments that impact language production, among other conditions. Primary concerns include disparities in access to services; the need for training on working with interdisciplinary teams; minimizing bias, micro-aggressions, and stereotyping; and issues related to translation, interpretation, and intercultural communication. In addition to these concerns, linguistically diverse populations are often excluded from research, resulting in gaps in knowledge about their needs. Service accommodations for language minorities tend to focus on translation and interpretation; however, research suggests that social workers also need to understand and guard against unconscious bias, and learn to use affirmative language to support the well-being of clients rather than pathologizing them. Clients with communication disabilities, on the other hand, may have distinct or overlapping needs, and service organizations rarely address the language support needs of these two populations within one unified framework. Service providers may waste precious time and effort navigating multiple, overlapping policy directives. Information on the policy context in the United States and the European Union related to language rights and language access provides a background for this topic.

Keywords: communication, access to services, cultural sensitivity, social justice, language access


Issues of language are prominent through the delivery of services. Social work is practiced through relationships with or on behalf of people (Kornbeck, 2001). As such, the ability to communicate effectively with and about clients is a paramount responsibility that rests with the social worker. Language is a powerful tool that reflects and transmits society’s assumptions about the world and people, and, as such, its usage is a sociopolitical process and a social justice issue (Vojak, 2009). Moseley (2014) cautions social workers to assess whether the language they use is commonly understood or colleague-speak.

Ethnologue estimates that there are nearly 250 languages spoken in the United States and more than 7,000 languages spoken internationally (Simons & Fennig, 2018), resulting in a great challenge not only in service delivery but also in policy development, education, and research. Academic discussions of language use are often rooted in an English-dominant perspective, when in fact more people internationally are bilingual than monolingual and a majority of the world speaks English as a second language (Harrison, 2009). Pomeroy and Nonaka (2013) observe that social work practice is inherently impacted by worldwide globalization, international networking, and global transmigration, serving clients who are multinational, multilingual, and multicultural. This reality calls for an awareness that language is constructed by those in power but viewed as objective reality (Vojak, 2009). In order to communicate across differences in cultures and ideologies, practitioners need to use affirmative language and counter oppressive speech. Affirmative language is described as language that supports the well-being of others rather than pathologizing them. Oppressive speech is perceived by others to be racist, sexist, and otherwise offensive. Martinez (2017) argues for the term “linguistic violence” to describe the impact of forcing public school students to speak standard English, building on Pohjola’s (2016) prior description of this practice as using the language of the oppressor. It should be noted that regardless of an individual’s experiences of oppression, traces of historical oppression remain, encoded in linguistic and cultural practices. When service providers from the dominant culture are unaware of this history, they can unintentionally alienate minoritized clients.

An emphasis on the use of affirmative language, especially as it relates to marginalized communities, spread significantly in the first decades of the 21st century (Austin, 2018). This creates an issue for practicing social workers and other helping professionals; however, knowledge of new information and definitions of appropriate terms disseminated after their formal education requires professional development, continuing education, or training on the most current affirmative practices. Though affirmative language falls in line with the profession’s value of social justice, many practicing social workers are unprepared to use newer terms, such as those describing gender fluidity or people’s first languages.

Clients With Speech, Language, or Communication Needs

The Migration Policy Institute (n.d.) describes “language access services” as the services that “agencies use to bridge the communication barrier with individuals who cannot speak, understand, read, or write fluently in the host-country language.” Policy responses to diverse individuals and groups who need language access services generally stratify clients into two broad categories: (a) immigrants and others who read, write, speak, or understand societally nondominant languages and (b) people with communication disabilities due to physical, psychological, or neurological conditions that affect language use. A communication disability is any condition that affects a person’s ability “to understand, hear, or use speech and language to communicate effectively with others” (Collins & O’Brien, 2011, p. 86). This category may include individuals with learning disabilities, speech disorders, aphasia, autism spectrum disorders, specific language impairment, and physical impairments that impact language production, among other conditions. Some conditions such as blindness or deafness are not categorized as communication disorders, although they can influence language acquisition (Humphries et al., 2014; Pérez-Pereira & Conti-Ramsden, 2013) and may pose communication challenges for social service providers.

In immigrant communities where people speak a language other than English, language access services generally focus on translation and interpretation, as well as building intercultural communication skills within the organization (Laglagaron, Carlson, Futterer, & Sperling, 2009). Clients with communication disabilities, on the other hand, may have distinct or overlapping needs, including access to what are referred to as “auxiliary aids and services” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014). Social workers and other helping professionals may need to collaborate with experts in fields such as medicine, education, and occupational or speech and language therapy (Broitman & Davis, 2013). It is rare for government agencies or service organizations to address the language support needs of these two broadly defined populations within one unified framework. Service providers for minority language speaking clients dealing with communication disabilities can be saddled with two overlapping policy directives, requiring extra administrative time and effort.

Primary Concerns

Disparities in Access to Services

The primary issue raised for social workers and other helping professionals in relation to language needs is the challenge of communication. Miscommunication can occur across dialects or languages as clients and their service providers have difficulty understanding one another, which often happens with clients who are immigrants and new Americans. English dominance within the field of social work can limit the profession’s knowledge base because linguistically diverse populations are often excluded from research (Casado, Negi, & Hong, 2012) and services. The absence of these populations results in gaps in knowledge about their needs. Further, without gathering first-person accounts from non-English speaking persons, it is difficult to know what barriers they may encounter when trying to access services. The underdeveloped research base with linguistically diverse clients is a challenge to social work and related professions and can ultimately lead to problems for practitioners as they attempt to apply techniques and therapeutic approaches that have not been validated for use with diverse language groups.

Understanding the desires of clients with communication challenges and advocating for their rights in broader society are ever-present needs. In this realm, social workers and other helping professionals may be challenged to be liaisons and advocates, in addition to their clinical and case management roles. Language is central in such situations as it is the mechanism through which cultural and emotional experiences are expressed. Service providers’ lack of knowledge can convey unintended messages that negatively impact relationships and service delivery with clients (Briggs & McBeath, 2010).

Social work research can better engage with linguistically diverse populations by acknowledging the isolation factor of their lived experiences. This is the first step in efforts to attain their interest, trust, and agreement to participate in research (Casado, Negi, & Hong, 2012). An important way in which to build trust is to ensure that research findings are disseminated in accessible ways that engage participants. Casado et al. also recommend that researchers utilize measurement instruments that have been assessed for validity in the native language of clients, and, when possible, translations of qualitative responses should be approved by study participants for accuracy.

Working on Interdisciplinary Teams

When working to meet the needs of clients with language, communication, or speech disorders, best practice guides collaborating with an interdisciplinary or interprofessional team that may include occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, physicians, educators, and/or independent living skills workers (Broitman & Davis, 2013). Service providers should seek to understand the various therapeutic approaches and cultural norms of these fields (Edwards, Newell, Rich, & Hitchcock, 2015), and they may seek out educational opportunities to learn strategies for working across professional domains.

Service providers often operate as part of interdisciplinary teams, in their own agencies as well as across settings. In these contexts, language and communication are paramount to collaboration and trust (McAuliffe, 2009). Interdisciplinary work has become such a standard in social work practice that it is infused across the curriculum in some social work education programs (Laurio, 2018) and considered best practice with certain populations (John A. Hartford Foundation, 2013). Collaborating on interdisciplinary teams is not without challenges. Culture, self-identity, role clarification, decision-making, communication, and power dynamics have been identified as potential barriers or facilitators to collaboration (Ambrose-Miller & Ashcroft, 2016).

Minimizing Bias, Micro-Aggression, and Stereotyping

Social justice and anti-oppressive practice addresses biases and micro-aggressions, especially micro-insults and stereotyping. All are related to language and language use. Language is rarely neutral; it frames worldviews and notions of acceptability (Vojak, 2009). The language used in service delivery not only communicates why and how one practices (Hawkins, Fook, & Ryan, 2001) but also one’s view of clients. Bishop (2008) suggests that helping service providers to identify their own linguistic identities can assist in reducing discriminatory practices. At the same time, however, Joseph (2006) cautions that consciousness of linguistic identity can also engender an “us against them” mentality.

Additionally, biases and prejudices can be activated when clients’ language use is different from that of the dominant culture. Pomeroy and Nonaka (2013) explore the experience of Hurricane Katrina survivors who spoke a Cajun dialect of English and the challenges they faced when their language usage resulted in being stereotyped as poor and lacking in education. The authors note these clients were labeled as lazy, unmotivated, and living off governmental assistance. Social workers are not immune to these biases, which can influence their practice. Language-based biases can also influence service providers’ views on collaboration with other professionals. Depending on the professionals’ language usage, they may encounter prejudices leading to negative assessments of their qualifications (Harrison, 2009).

Another important component of language use is its power to oppress or affirm various identities. In an exploration of affirmative care for transgender and gender diverse children, Austin (2018) concludes that the largest barrier to client care is provider bias. When encountering oppressive language, service providers must weigh the potentially negative impact that censorship might have on their relationships with clients against the damage of allowing oppressive language to continue. Duffy (2017) explores this tension but emphasizes that countering oppressive, ageist language from the media or internalized by clients can lead to better therapeutic outcomes for older people.

Chihota (2017) suggests that the education of service providers incorporate a ”critical language awareness” approach into its curriculum, allowing students to study how language is constructed and understood and how it demonstrates power. Such content is congruent with social work’s values of respect for individuals and social justice and can help future social workers understand their own communication practices. This approach would also build an understanding of oppressive structures and bring awareness of the various micro-politics in action with clients. Although self-awareness and social work values are infused across social work education, the focus is often on traditionally oppressed groups, general social justice issues, and diversity issues, not language in particular.

Perspectives of Frontline Workers

Given the lack of training in languages and language sensitivity in social work education (Kornbeck, 2001), most frontline workers are unprepared to deal with issues of language differences. Alaggia, Maiter, and Jenney (2017) explore the experiences of domestic violence and child protection with clients with limited English proficiency. Workers reported that language was important for client engagement and that cultural considerations were essential when working with immigrant populations. Interpreters were often used as a tool for connecting with clients.

Translation, Interpretation, and Intercultural Communication

Best practices for addressing the language needs of clients include interpretation, professional education, and encouraging greater diversity. When working across languages, translation and interpretation services are recommended, but issues of privacy and cost arise as barriers. With limited budgets, many agencies may attempt to use friends and family of the client, but this can create social and ethical challenges. The better option is the use of professional interpretation services, but this solution is also not devoid of privacy concerns (Pomeroy & Nonaka, 2013). In using interpreters for trauma survivors, Berthold and Fischman (2014) recommend:

  • Careful selection of interpreters in a manner that empowers clients;

  • Training, supporting, and promoting self-care for interpreters as a means of combatting secondary trauma; and

  • Training service providers on appropriate boundaries with interpreters.

Language is an inextricable part of culture. As such, interpretation and translation services that bridge cultural divides act as strategies for cultural maintenance (Pohjola, 2016). Pohjola also stresses that when clients are able to work with social workers who speak their native tongue, cultural understanding is increased.

Westlake and Jones (2018) found that social workers who used an assertive approach in interpreter-mediated sessions engaged more effectively with clients. This approach included assessing and explaining misunderstandings, having “chit-chat” to begin the process of relationship building, and mitigating differing levels of language proficiency by conducting the session in the client’s native language. While service providers may find it intimidating to work across language differences, it is their responsibility to bridge the gap. Pomeroy and Nonaka (2013) recommend a second-language study for all service providers. They should also be aware of their own biases related to diverse, affirmative, and oppressive languages. Continuing education is important so that social workers and other helping professionals are aware of what constitutes appropriate, affirming language with the diverse client populations they work with. Even with continuing education, however, it is important to respect client self-determination and allow individuals to dictate which terms are most agreeable for them (Austin, 2018).

At a macro level, social workers and other helping professionals can advocate for and support the training of more multilingual service providers, especially native speakers (Pomeroy & Nonaka, 2013). It is important, however, to ensure that these individuals are not siloed into particular client populations or taken advantage of to fill roles as interpreters or translators without respect to the workload defined in their job responsibilities or without additional compensation.

Policy Responses

United States

In the United States, policy responses to the need for language access services are generally divided into policies that target non-English users and those that target individuals with disabilities. This stratification can be traced to the unique legal and historical processes by which the civil rights of people with disabilities and linguistic minorities were recognized in society. The basic rights of non-English users in the United States were first articulated by the Supreme Court in the case of Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), in which Justice James C. McReynolds wrote that “the protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue” (p. 401). These rights were further defined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred discrimination based on based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. However, it was not until Lau v. Nichols (1974) that this law was specifically construed to require language access services for non-English users, establishing language as a proxy for national origin when interpreting the Civil Rights Act (Ramos, 2018). In this case, Chinese American parents successfully argued before the Supreme Court that public schools have an affirmative responsibility to assure that all students, regardless of English proficiency, have meaningful access to instruction. In 2000, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13166, defining “limited English proficiency” in law and mandating efforts to provide services to individuals regardless of their ability to speak, read, write, or comprehend English. This “triggered a proliferation of efforts” (Laglaron et al., 2009) across local, state, and federal levels to develop new tools and practices for assessing and monitoring language needs. These new policy tools were aimed at developing effective and comprehensive service delivery plans, certifying and training translators and interpreters, and engaging in program monitoring and evaluation (Laglaron et al., 2009).

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established the first federal civil rights protections for persons with disabilities in the United States, barring exclusion or discrimination by any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. This law was expanded in 1990 through the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which “applied those standards to most private sector businesses, and sought to eliminate barriers to disabled access in buildings, transportation, and communication” (Richards, 1999). In 2008, the ADA Amendment Act explicitly included speaking, hearing, reading, and communicating as major life activities that could be used to legally identify a disabling condition. According to the Department of Justice, all government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public, are required to communicate effectively with people who have vision, hearing, or speech disabilities (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014). This means they must provide auxiliary aids and services when needed, and they must take into account the nature, length, complexity, and context of communication when assessing what is needed for communication to be effective. Auxiliary aids and services can include qualified language service providers (readers, notetakers, sign language interpreters, oral interpreters, cued-speech interpreters, tactile interpreters, or speech-to-speech transliterators), alternative text formats (e.g. large print, Braille, audio-recording of printed material, written scripts of speeches, communication boards, etc.), and a wide variety of assistive technologies such as real-time captioning, screen reader software, and assistive listening devices (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014, p. 2).


In many countries outside of the United States, multilingualism is the norm and is less likely to be framed as a problem for policymakers (Ruiz, 1984). Regardless of the linguistic environment, services should optimally be provided through efficient and reliable communication, and there are laws and regulations pertaining to the language used for services provision (Casimir & Morrison, 1993; Lum, 2011). An examination of the European Union (EU) provides an example of language access policies that were developed in a context of pluralistic language ideologies.

Language as a Right

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which was adopted in 2000 and made legally binding by the Treaty of Lisbon, prohibits discrimination on grounds of language (Article 21) and places an obligation on the EU to respect linguistic diversity (Article 22). Respect for linguistic diversity is also incorporated into the preamble of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which indicates that the TEU’s inspiration comes from the cultural, religious, and humanist inheritance of Europe (Franke & Hériard, 2018). Values of respect and inclusivity are demonstrated throughout the TEU, with Article 3 stating explicitly that the EU “shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe's cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced” (Consolidated version of the Treaty on European Union, 2016).

The first regulations related to language date back to 1958. At the time, it was determined that official EU languages would include the four languages used in the former European Economic Community. Subsequently, to ensure that linguistic diversity would continue to be respected and included in their policies, the EU amended Article 22 following accession to the EU to include languages of the new countries that joined the union. This also changed the definition of “official language” in the EU charter to automatically include languages of new countries as they join the EU. Furthermore, the policy states that every citizen of the EU has the right to write to any of the institutions or bodies of the EU in one of those languages and to receive an answer in the same language, pursuant to Article 24 (Franke & Hériard, 2018).

This clearly demonstrates the intentional efforts being made by the EU to ensure that language rights are respected when services are provided within or between member states. This is in line with the cultural competency expectations in social work to ensure that clients are served in the appropriate language that would benefit them.

Translation and Interpretation

The EU recognizes 24 official languages. The Interinstitutional Committee for Translation and Interpretation provides a forum for coordinating language services across the EU, rooted in the belief that one fundamental requirement of a democratic EU is to provide every member with the ability to access documents and services in his or her own language (Directorate-General for Interpretation, 2018). As such, all legislation, key political documents, and general information must be published in all EU official languages (European Union, 2019). To this end, the Interinstitutional Committee for Translation and Interpretation has published pamphlets highlighting the responsibilities of interpreters involved in both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting.

Beyond the idea that language access is a fundamental component of effective democracy, the EU is invested in supporting native language maintenance and promoting plurilingualism (Directorate-General for Translation, 2017). Beyond the 24 officially recognized languages of the EU, plans are in the works to create special rules for minority languages within the EU such as Valencian/Catalan, Basque, Galician, and Welsh. Arrangements are being negotiated with the countries concerned, which will bear the costs themselves. In Germany, for example, there are laws in place to include minority languages. Legislation to safeguard German as the only official language has been proposed but has not succeeded. Language policy in Germany is often seen as noninterventionist (Beck, 2017) because most Germans do not see a need to protect the German language (Adler & Beyer, 2018).

While EU language policy does not specifically address language access in social work, it is rooted in the notion that in a society where plurilingualism is a social fact, commitment to human rights and democratic ideals requires that service providers ensure that communication is provided in the appropriate language for users of the services. This means that social service institutions serving multilingual populations should develop policies and dedicate resources toward translation and interpretation.


Changing migration patterns across Europe have led to increased linguistic diversity and more interest from member countries in multilingual education (Staring, Day, & Meierkord, 2017). A report on multilingual education intended for policymakers (Herzog-Punzenberger, Le Pichon-Vorstman, & Siarova, 2017) notes that there tend to be achievement gaps between migrant children who speak a nondominant language and their native-born peers. In line with other research in this area (Mehmedbegovic, 2016; Van de Craen, Surmont, Ceuleers, & Allain, 2013), the report finds that multilingual education can enhance the confidence of these migrant students, as well as their cultural awareness and pride in their own culture. Furthermore, multilingual education can increase employment opportunities in the future. The report comments on past multilingual development within the EU and describes best practices that have contributed to successful programs—practices that could also inform provision of social work services in multilingual settings. Namely, language policy needs to be comprehensive and multifaceted, including such concerns as practitioner training, institutional culture (at every level, not just at point of delivery), and community involvement in the ongoing development of policy and practice.

Summary and Implications for Social Work Education, Practice, Research, and Policies

There is no doubt that social workers and other helping professionals have a duty and responsibility to learn and use language and its components in a culturally respectful manner to avoid linguistic violence and to practice in a meaningful manner with clients. This call for the education of social workers and other service providers to include sensitivity to languages and communication in its curriculum is a social justice issue. It also is congruent with Kornbeck’s (2001) recommendation that social work education shift its focus from the problems of clients to the training needs of service providers, a need that has persisted (Alaggia et al., 2017). Practitioners must also obtain training on the best strategies to incorporate language sensitivity into their present work. In addition, the language used in social services is constantly changing (Vojak, 2009), especially in relation to social justice. Thus, educators and practitioners must be aware of such changes and incorporate the most up-to-date terms and their meanings in education, practice, policy, and research.

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