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Introducing social work: a starter kit
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10 Working with interpreters

This is a photograph showing a group of people talking to each other.
Figure 11

It is important to consider how cultural differences might affect communication both on practical grounds (for example, will an interpreter be needed?) and with regard to the unwritten rules and taken-for-granted assumptions, such as the use of non-verbal language, gestures, greetings and touch. Writing about the connections between language use and power, Thompson (2011) suggests that certain modes of speech are seen as superior to others. Discrimination can occur due to prejudices about local dialects or the superiority of one language over another.

Unwin and Hogg (2012) note a number of suggestions for working with interpreters, including:

  • Try to always use the first language of the family.
  • Try to use an interpreter that can also understand and translate all written correspondence.
  • When using an interpreter, allow more time that would be usual for a similar interview.
  • Be aware of the varying cultural norms for some individuals. For example, in some countries, it may be highly unusual for the state to intervene in ‘private family matters’, especially in situations where there may be domestic violence. This may include a reluctance or refusal of a female family member to discuss issues with a male social worker.
  • The interpreter must accept the confidentiality of their contact with the family, but some families may not trust an individual from their own country or community to maintain confidentiality, even if sincere assurances are provided by the interpreter.

Language can be used to help and to solve problems. But it can also be used negatively and on occasions it can be actively discriminatory.