Connecticut Post, Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bi-Lingual, Bi-Cultural Skills

Can Translate into Employment and Better Paying Jobs


Abrochure from the Modern Language Association extols the virtues of multi-lingualism and suggests that people seeking work in certain professions should be proficient in more than one language.

There are benefits to having language skills. They can provide an edge in the workplace and even in job search. The ability to speak a language other than English may increase a job seeker’s odds of securing a position. It could make an employee more valuable to a company that is looking to expand into foreign markets or reach a broader clientele at home. And it often means getting a higher sal–ary than an employee devoid of those skills.

People can multiply their chances for success if they speak two or more languages, said Hernan Yepes, director of student services at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, where he also teaches psychology and sociology courses in Spanish.

In a global society, being mono-lingual is passé. Being multi–lingual is desirable and prestigious, he said. “In a global society we have to realize there is a lot to be gained,” Yepes said. Gaining an appreciation for different cultures helps people become more com–passionate and helps them feel more connected, he said. “Language is the perfect vehicle for that,” he said.

Enhanced language skills also have a direct benefit that goes beyond the personal or business application. They can mean the difference between life and death for people in the medical profes–sion and law enforcement.

“People who need services need to be understood and cared for well,” Yepes said.

Antonio Senes, a retired professor who taught Spanish at Hou–satonic Community College for almost 20 years, recalls an incident at a hospital emergency room where a doctor was using a profes–sional translation services over the Internet. The translator, who was not a native Spanish speaker, had a good command of the language and for the most part was translating correctly. But the patient kept using a particular phrase that the translator could not comprehend. That’s because the patient used a particular vernacular, or idi–omatic expression, that would only have been familiar to a native Spanish speaker. The phrase was not one that would have been taught to students in a Spanish 101 class. The phrase would not have appeared in a Spanish textbook. Perhaps a non-native Spanish speaker would have recognized the phrase if they had taken ad–vanced Spanish language courses or had lived in a Spanish-speaking country for some time.

Often, advanced courses go beyond nouns and verbs to incorpo–rate a country’s culture, and it is an understanding of that culture as well as its language that allows for real understanding and commu–nicating.

At the emergency room, Senes had to intervene to interpret for the doctor because the patient, who was stressed from the situation and also had a mental illness, was saying that he wanted to hang himself.

“Sometimes it’s so crucial to know the popular people’s lan–guage versus the book language,” said Senes, who created a Medical Spanish course that is taught at Housatonic Community College, al–though it is not available every semester. He said it is tremendously important to have medical professionals who can comprehend and communicate in a patient’s native tongue because even those that may speak English may resort to their own language in stressful situations.

“When people get sick, either mentally or biologically, their Eng–lish as a second language becomes almost totally obscured,” he said. Difficulty communicating their needs can compound their stress and frustration, he said.

Officials of New England Home Care know that and make an ef–fort to hire people with both bi-lingual and bi-cultural skills. It’s not a matter of discrimination. The company, which is headquartered in Cromwell and has offices in five other cities throughout the state, has employees from many backgrounds on staff. But certain clients need contact, at least initially, with people who thoroughly under–stand their language and culture.

“Ninety five percent of my clients are Spanish speaking and the Latino population is growing,” said Yvette Gonzalez, a registered nurse who specializes in the care of psychiatric patients, who has worked for New England Home Care for 12 years.

“The cultural part of it is so important to us. In home care it’s not a controlled environment. You’re going into a patient’s environ–ment. You’re entering into their privacy. You’re being invited into their home where they feel safe and comfortable, and you have to approach your work that way,” Gonzalez said. “In order for a patient to feel comfortable and let you into their environment there has to be respect and understanding. The client has to feel understood to allow the healthcare professional into their home,” she said.

Gonzalez said that personal connection must be made with a person from the initial meeting and assessment. If the client does not feel comfortable with the healthcare professionals taking care of them it can interfere with their ability to make progress in their healing, whether it’s physical or mental.

“We cannot meet the patients’ needs if the initial connection is not made upon admission into the home care program,” she said.

And the connection cannot be made if the nurse or home health care aide or occupational therapist or physical therapist does not have an understanding of a patient’s culture, beliefs and living ar–rangements, which can vary from culture to culture.

“It’s so important in the first phase. The first person to do the assessment should be bi-lingual and bi-cultural,” Gonzalez said. It is even important in the second phase in which nurses teach clients about their disease or diagnosis, how to take certain medications to optimize their health and avoid hospitalization. Any nurse is obvi–ously capable of doing that job. They have the medical knowledge and skill level, but it’s difficult if there is a language barrier, Gonza–lez said.

But once the patient is engaged in the program and has devel–oped a sense of trust, then other professional who do not share their cultural background can be introduced to the care team.

However, the language skills are still vital.

The problem is there are not enough people in the healthcare profession who are either bi-lingual or bi-cultural. “It’s a luxury to have a bi-lingual, bi-cultural nurse,” Gonzalez said. There is a great need in general for people in the field to have those qualifications, she said.

Bi-lingual and bi-cultural home health aides are also in demand because, among their duties is preparing a patient’s meals, Gonzalez said. “When a patient is not feeling well, whether physically or men–tally, what’s the first thing that usually goes? The appetite, so they stop eating,” Gonzalez said.

Someone who shares the patient’s language and cultural back–ground will be well versed in the kinds of foods, spices, and meal preparation that the patient is most familiar and comfortable with.

That can help stimulate their appetite and relax them. Someone who is Latino, especially someone who works in the healthcare profession, will also be knowledgeable of the diseases, such as dia–betes and high blood pressure, that plaque the Latino population.

That aide can also make meals that are culturally tasty and accept–able but also nutritionally sound.

“It’s a holistic approach. You look at the whole picture,” Gonza–lez said.

New England Home Care provides numerous services to its clients. Speech pathology is not one of them. But that is another job where it would be critical to have a real proficiency, not only in comprehending a patient’s native language but also pronouncing each word correctly.

Senes said it is not an act of favoritism or discrimination for Spanish-speaking patients to insist that they have Spanish-speaking medical professionals. It is a matter of necessity, and, as pointed out in Senes’ earlier emergency room story, it really can be a difference between life and death if a health professional cannot understand.

A health professional must be able to comprehend what a patient is trying to communicate in order to properly treat them. Con–versely, a doctor or other professional must be able to communicate instructions to a patient about proper use of a medication or foods to avoid or activities to curtail if their injury or illness is expected to heal.

Some people cannot learn English as fast as others, and those people should be accommodated, said Senes, who believes doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians and other healthcare profes–sionals should take a Medical Spanish course to have at least some familiarity with the language and some means of communicating with a patient.

Yepes agrees saying those few words of Spanish to an injured or ill patient can be soothing. “If you have a healthcare professional who has taken the time and made the effort to learn the language it goes beyond the therapeutic effectiveness,” he said. Although Yepes said there are no qualitative studies to support his statement, he believes firmly that the healthcare professional that learns another language to communicate with his or her patients proves to those patients that they have a certain degree of compassion and empa–thy, and that goes a long way in building trust.

At New England Home Care there are always openings for bi-lingual, bi-cultural healthcare professionals. Those interested in applying for work can attend an Open House that New England Home Care will host on Thursday, Nov. 19, 4-7 p.m., at the Shelton office, 1077 Bridgeport Ave # 301. The Open House is open to the public. It is a job recruiting event and people are encouraged to bring their resumes.

For more information call New England Home Care’s Human Resource Department toll-free at 800-286-6300 or call the Shelton office at 203-925-5929.