The Bilingual Advantage: How Knowing a Second Language Can Save Lives


Knowing a second language can improve your life, but it can also save the lives of others.

A recent article in Politico by Carl Costas addressed the changing landscape in American demographics that is currently leading to a significant change in healthcare: an increase in the number of patients who speak other languages.

“On any given day at the Salud Clinic, Lucrecia Maas sees about 22 patients. They come to the community health center tucked away in an office park needing cavities filled, prescriptions renewed and babies vaccinated. When they start to speak, it’s rarely in English. They might speak Hindi. Or Dari. Or Hmong. Or Russian.

Maas is fluent in English and Spanish, but that gets her only so far. On most days, she guesses, her patients will speak about six languages. She often has to hop on the phone with a medical interpreter, who relays her questions to the patient and then translates the patient’s answers. “It just takes a little more time,” the nurse practitioner says.”

Communication in healthcare can have life or death consequences for patients, but insurance doesn’t cover the cost of translation, says the article, so hospitals, doctors, nurses, and healthcare providers are struggling to keep up with the demands of a population with increasingly diverse language needs.

Any career benefits from knowledge of a second language, but, as the article points out, in healthcare, language can be life-saving. According to the article:

“Jose Arevalo, a Sacramento-based physician, has witnessed a few tragic miscommunication mistakes during his 35-year career in medicine. There was the time a young man who had recently hit his head was brought into the emergency department with blood pooling in his brain. He hadn’t understood instructions to seek medical attention if his headaches got worse. Or there was the time one of Arevalo’s patients went to see a specialist who told her, in broken Spanish, that she had anemia. The patient heard the Spanish word for leukemia, and believed she was going to die.”

There is an increasing need for bilingual health care professionals with strong language skills.

“Often a staff member can help. When someone shows up who doesn’t speak English, “right away, we try to get them to at least say the language,” says Donna Paul, the longtime clinic manager. The health center has doctors and nurses who speak Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Tagalog and Spanish, and has hired administrative staff and medical assistants who speak Hmong and Mien.”

That creates a hiring benefit for bilingual applicants; having skills in one of the many growing languages in America puts you at an advantage in applying for jobs in the medical profession. Not only that, but you’re using your language skills not just for your own betterment, but for the greater good of our increasingly multilingual society.

If you’re interested in learning a language to advance your career, start with our online courses, available in 29 languages. You can also check out our Spanish on the Job for Healthcare Workers course if you’re already working within Spanish communities as a healthcare professional.