Q&A: Do I need to know basic phrases in a second language to compete as a nurse?


Question: I only speak English. Will this hurt my chances of being a successful nurse?

As a nurse, you sometimes will take care of a patient who does not or cannot speak the same language as you. In order to optimize the care you give, it becomes a priority to navigate through or around the language barrier.

Does this mean every nurse should and will need to learn a second language? Let’s put it this way — no one’s expecting you to be fluent in Spanish, French, German and Portuguese to be considered a successful nurse. Would it benefit you or help your career to know the basics of a second language? It can’t hurt. Of course, it can also depend on your career goals and the population where you practice. For example, if you live in Los Angeles, think how much it could impact your workday if you could communicate with Spanish-speaking patients.

Scroll down to the bottom to see how many of your fellow nurses are bilingual or feel the need to learn a second language!

If you’ve just realized you need to start brushing up on a second language STAT – here are a few measures you can take to help you establish good lines of communication with your foreign language-speaking patients. Here are some suggestions:

Smile. Don’t Panic

The last thing your patient needs is to see you flustered. Just imagine how they feel right now: They are entrusting you to care for them, and they have no idea what you’re saying or doing! Use the tools you were given as a nurse–therapeutic communication is not only about the words you speak. Cultural barriers aside, a smile will do wonders for your patient’s fears.

Use Communication Boards

Communicating through a language barrier can be approached the same way you take care of a patient who cannot speak. Patients with a tracheostomy tube, on a ventilator and even patients who have suffered a stroke need visual and audible cues to assist in proper communication. Use these boards to get through the basics.

Interpreter Services

This can be tough. The availability of an interpreter can be facility-specific. Some will have an actual human being come to your patients’ rooms, while others will have to make a 3-way phone call so you and your patient can communicate. I have worked in facilities that actually have a very unique phone system that is specifically used for interpretation–I found this article that gives a brief synopsis of the device.


As a last-ditch effort, you could try to locate a coworker or fellow employee who is versed in the patient’s language. While this is not ideal and is usually not recommended, emergent situations will arise. I would also mention, but never recommend, using the patient’s family member or friend. We were all taught in Nursing 101 that it can be counterproductive and actually create additional barriers to communication if the interpreter is emotionally vested in the patient. Once again, emergent situations do arise.

Go to the Internet!

I must admit, I probably would not ever use this option because other professional services are available to the majority of health care professionals, but it at least bears mention of its existence. I’ve used the Internet for translation, but I never thought of using it for interpretation. Crazier things have happened.

In the end, communicating with your patient is your No. 1 priority. I’m sure it’s a part of our care that we automatically take for granted. I would be sure to pose the question to your supervisor and learn what steps you have in place to ensure you always have an open line of communication with those you care for.


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