Overcoming Language and Communication Barriers in Social Work

Imagine walking into a room full of people who are speaking a language that you don’t understand. How would you feel? Would it make you anxious? Would you feel lost? Working in the social work field it is inevitable that you would run into a client who does not speak English. Communication barriers in social work can be difficult, but as a social worker, you have many options that will still allow you to help your clients.

More and more Americans in the United States are speaking different languages. As of the 2011 census figures, 291.5 million people aged 5 and over, 60.6 million people (21 percent of the population) spoke a language other than English at home and 13.6 million (4.65 percent of the population) had very little or no understanding of the English language. (Ryan, 2013).

Related Reading: Tips for Working with a Language Interpreter

Quick tips for working with Non-English-speaking clients:

Speak Slowly and Clearly

It is important to slow down your speech and speak clearly when speaking to your clients who do not speak English.  Even if your time is limited, plan to add more time for clients who speak another language. Rushing with your clients could lead to miscommunication and lead to more work in the long run.

Ask for Clarification

If you do not understand what is being said do not hesitate to ask them to repeat or clear up what has been said.  Clarification is important in many situations, especially when what is being communicated is difficult in some way. Communication barriers in social work can often be limited when you ask for clarification.

Communication can be difficult for many reasons, perhaps sensitive emotions are being discussed or you are listening to some complex information or following instructions. Speaking a different language can make this even more challenging.

Check Often for Understanding

Make sure they understand you.  Try breaking things down into more understandable terms.  This is where examples or further explanation may be needed.  A great way to do this is through reflective listening, such as “So, I am hearing you say…”

Another way would be to ask open-ended questions such as – What were your thoughts on the meeting at your child’s school? Instead of – “did you understand everything today during the meeting?”  

Try Not to Use Jargon

Do not use abbreviations or other languages that might not be understood. When setting up a meeting time – using the term noon instead of 12:00 pm, could mean something totally different in their language or be misunderstood.

And watch using any other jargon when writing notes or communicating through e-mail such DX (diagnosis), PRN (when needed), or any other abbreviations that could be confusing.

Bring Along an Interpreter

If you are not 100% at speaking the language of your client, bring along an interpreter. This may help in the long run with breaking words down or any miscommunication.

Vary Your Ways of Communication

Sometimes language can be understood better in emails, texts, speaking, or paperwork in their language.  Find what works best for your clients.

Be Patient

It could take several times of repeating the same things over and over again until a client grasps what is being said.  Be patient with them and understand communication is hard for them.  Being impatient could lead to anxiety in communication for your client.

Working Through Communication Barriers in Social Work

Imagine you have a Spanish speaking family sitting at their daughter’s IEP meeting for Kindergarten. The room is full of several people who all speak English.  Words are being thrown out such as developmental delay, cognitive ability, diagnosis, contained setting, and inclusive setting.  Think about the fear and confusion most likely running through their heads.

  • Prepare your client for the meeting beforehand at a session or home visit. Make sure they know what is going to be discussed and prepare them for the room full of people.
  • Ask for an interpreter to be present and written material to be available in Spanish.
  • During the IEP, make sure you ask questions on things that seem unclear to you because they will most likely be confusing for your client as well.
  • Read your client’s nonverbal cues such as looking down when talking, restlessness, tears, etc. Ask for a break if clients get too upset or ask for clarification when things look like they are being misunderstood.
  • Ask open-ended questions to your client before they make any decisions. Such as – “How do you feel about the classroom placement for your daughter? What questions do you have about this document?”
  • Always follow up with a session or home visit a couple days later to make sure no question have come up? And feel them out for their understanding of the meeting.  This is where reflective listening should be used and more open-ended questions.


Reference List:

Ryan, C. (August 2013). Language Use in the United States: 2011, 1-16. Retrieved May 01, 2016

Overcoming Language and Communication Barriers in Social Work
Article Name
Overcoming Language and Communication Barriers in Social Work
Communication barriers in social work can be difficult. As a social worker, you have many options to help your client regardless.
Publisher Name
Publisher Logo