Language Barriers and Family Mental Health

By April 2022, the foreign-born population in the US hit a record of 47 million. [1] Additionally, 67.3 million people spoke a foreign language at home, including American Sign Language. [2] For families that belong to this population, the limited or non-existent knowledge of the English language (LEP) [3] delays or prevents them from participating effectively in everyday activities. These families can experience feelings of dependence, frustration, fear, restlessness, and anguish, which pose a risk to their mental and physical health.
Medical appointments, immigration procedures, decisions about insurance plans, and even basic transactions such as requesting a driver’s license generate great stress for LEPS, which can cause isolation from their community and delay personal, labor, and financial development.

Family dynamics

It is common for household heads with limited English knowledge, such as parents, grandparents, or other family members, to request the help of others who have fluency in the language. Usually, fluent members have been born in the US and are between the ages of 5 and 17, [4] attend educational institutions with locals, and are exposed to the dominant language and culture.

The stress of children who interpret or translate

Although changing from one language to another might seem easy for many of these children and adolescents, they lack the interpersonal skills to act as linguistics and cultural mediators. Serving as an interpreter or translator for their parents or representatives forces them to deal with adult matters or issues directly related to themselves, such as medical diagnoses or school problems, for which they do not have cognitive, social, and emotional skills. In a study conducted by the National Library of Medicine, [5] it was determined that children and adolescents who serve as interpreters or translators of the elderly in the home report high levels of stress and pressure to precisely translate issues with complex or unknown vocabularies in matters that go beyond their age. It was determined that children and adolescents see this responsibility as a burden, generating intense anxiety that usually keeps silent, negatively affecting the relationship between them and the LEP, evidenced in symptoms such as frequent stomach pains and headaches. They can develop challenging personality disorders, disruptive behaviors, or other harmful behaviors.

The emotional burden imposed on bilingual children and adolescents causes them to try to act at a cognitive age that does not match them. They feel responsible for their parents and what happens to them, even when they reach young adulthood, an Age in which they begin to become independent. The feeling of guilt appears for having to “abandon” their parents.

What about other relatives?

A relative without the necessary cognitive, emotional, cultural, and technical language skills could have adverse effects on the process of the LEP when involved by compromising objectivity and making it impossible to respect the confidentiality of the information provided, which can cause confusion and inaccuracies. Family members can advise or omit points of view. Depending on unqualified people to interpret medical information, for example, can generate misunderstandings, devastating results, or even death.

Professional interpreters and translators are trained to convey the message correctly and communicate the intention and meaning of it, maintaining purity and cultural nuances of the languages involved. With deep management of complex terminology of the area where they exercise, these professionals are subject to legal obligations of confidentiality and a code of ethics to perform interpretation or translation of high productivity, accuracy, impartiality, transparency, and cultural sensitivity. Professional interpreters and translators interpret or translate precisely what is said so that the recipient obtains complete and precise information, allowing them to make the best decisions to get the best results.

Why are professional interpreters and translators necessary for LEP families?

Having an interpretation and translation professional provides a safe space, autonomy, and better stress management to the person who requests it and his family. Linguistic professionals release psychological and emotional burdens to adolescents and children or other relatives who are not cognitively prepared for that work, which is not part of their responsibility within their development as individuals. The interpreters and qualified translators guarantee clear bilateral communication that preserves the quality of life of the LEP and its family environment, where the questions and confirmation of information are resolved in a framework of confidentiality and respect while making the empowered LEP feel your processes.

Language access is vital to safeguard a healthy family environment, With independent parents and safe children of their abilities, with childhoods free of stress-related disorders, anxiety, depression, and somatic. Title VI of the Civil Rights Law of 1964[6] establishes access to an interpreter or translator as a right and requires that federal financial assistance beneficiaries take reasonable measures to make their programs, services, and activities accessible to eligible people with a limited domain of English. That is why it is necessary to create collective awareness about the rights that families with linguistic abilities have limited to having professional interpreters and translators in the different spaces where they make life.

If English is not your primary language and you need help communicating effectively, the recommendation is to use a qualified interpreter or translator.

[1] https://cis.org/Report/ForeignBorn-Population-Hit-Record-47-Million-April-2022
[2] https://cis.org/Report/673-Million-United-States-Spoke-Foreign-Language-Home-2018
[3] https://www.lep.gov/
[4] https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/language-diversity-and-english-proficiency-united-states
[5] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/07399863980203001; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21681583/
[6] Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (42 USC § 2000d), prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin 45 CFR 80.

About the Authors:

Leonela Sauve is LUNA’s Law, Policy, and HR Advisor. She’s a bilingual international lawyer who works on diversity initiatives and language access projects to ensure community members of all language backgrounds can reach their full potential.

Lorena Beltran is a bilingual Psychologist with expertise in children’s behavior and migratory grief. She works with US immigrant families to help them learn to better cope with life in a new country and improve their mental health conditions.