Wardipedia – 47. Minority languages

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FOUND in translation

Poster for Lost in Translation – in Hebrew.


Imagine walking into a new job or social situation where nobody speaks your language. How do you find out what the routine is? Ask for the toilet? Talk to someone about how you’re feeling?

Many people for whom English is a second language, or who use sign language, find themselves in this situation when they are admitted to a UK hospital ward. It’s obviously essential to be able to communicate effectively with patients and their families who don’t speak English and there are lots of ways to make this possible on your ward.

When staff can communicate with patients who have a minority primary language and culture, it’s much easier to meet their needs. As well as being essential for communication, making the effort to learn some basics in commonly-spoken languages can help patients feel more secure and welcome on the ward.

Patients will want advice and information not only in relation to their mental health, but also all the same areas as native English speakers i.e. physical health, housing, childcare…

So, where to start?

It’s likely that the catchment area for your hospital has groups who speak particular minority languages. You can find out which languages are commonly spoken from staff who live locally, the hospital audit department and the PALS (Patient Advice and Liaison Services) team.

Use the skills and resources within your team – if someone already speaks another language, or has a facility for learning languages, encourage this. As well as being a great resource, it will also give others in the team confidence to try.

One idea to consider is to ensure that every staff member on your ward has a basic vocabulary in the top two or three minority languages spoken by patients. This might include British Sign Language (BSL). See Resources for a link to the BSL website, which has lots of material you can use.

Ward examples

  • We learn how to say ‘hello’ and other essential words and phrases in two or three different languages.
  • The ward has a ‘hello’ / ‘welcome’ poster on the wall – with greetings in as many different languages as they could find or in the languages specific to the ward’s local community.
  • Staff learn the basic BSL signs/finger spelling (see Resources for a link to the BSL site, which has free, printable information).
  • The ward makes the best possible use of available interpreters’ services. This includes booking interpreters for times when doctors/nurses are available and ensuring that whoever is talking to the patient addresses the person rather than the interpreter.
  • The team avoids using patients’ families and friends as interpreters wherever possible.
  • The Trust uses Language Line for telephone interpretation (see Resources), and makes sure all staff on the ward know how to make the best use of the service.
  • Materials about how the ward operates available in as many languages as possible – lots of PCTs have translation facilities for leaflets.
  • The ward printed relevant pages from NHS choices in different languages (see Resources) or direct patients and their families to the relevant areas of the website.
  • It has been arranged for the hospital library to have books and other resources available in the languages spoken by patients.
  • 24-hour interpreting contracts for deaf patients are issued. Staff are informed about this service during their induction programmes.
Denmark House, Birmingham
Denmark House is one of three specialist mental health acute units in the country for deaf people. As well as training hearing staff about deaf culture and British Sign Language (BSL), one staff member is also very skilled at communicating with deaf people who either are not fluent in BSL or who use a different form of sign language (for example, Irish or American Sign Language or even signing that has been developed within a family). Staff also use hands-on signing with deaf-blind patients.Many deaf people struggle with English literacy and this has important implications in terms of printed information. Denmark House translates important documents into printed BSL so that the information is easier to access.

Patient examples

  • English is not my first language, so an interpreter was contacted and I was able through them explain to a psychiatrist how I was feeling. They also explained to me and my relatives the benefit of staying. In my culture mental illness is dismissed and seen as a weakness and is often dealt with by close family members. My family finally accepted that I was in the best place for me to get well.


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