Social work with interpreters: lessons from research

Despite the inequalities faced by people with limited English proficiency, social workers receive little or no training in how to work with interpreters in communicating with them, finds Sarah Pollock

Two professionals in discussion regarding a young woman
Photo: Valerii Honcharuk/Adobe Stock

By Sarah Pollock

Working via interpreters is an increasingly common necessity across the social work and care workforces. The 2011 Census showed that 864,000 people across England described themselves as unable to speak English either well or at all. More recent data is not yet available but is unlikely to show a reduction in this number. Of these 864,000, only 65% described their health as good, compared to 88% of their English-speaking counterparts (ONS, 2015), a clear indication that people with limited English proficiency (LEP) are in poorer health than those who speak English.

Inequalities by language proficiency

Previous research has shown that people with LEP are more likely to defer treatment, miss appointments, leave without advice and struggle accessing appropriate health and social care (Lucas, 2016). Barriers such as time, suspicion, lack of experience and lack of understanding of different professional’s roles, have undoubtedly contributed to these challenges for people needing language support (Tipton, 2016).  This inequality of experience is why it is so important that social work and care providers are armed with the skills to work successfully via interpreters.

For two years, I have been researching what good practice should look like in these interactions and what support is available for social work students and practitioners to develop the skills necessary to successfully navigate interpreter-mediated practice.

Reviewing social work training

The initial phase of the project explored the availability of training for social workers, both in pre-qualifying programmes and in local authority continuing professional development.

A sample of social work qualifying programmes, including non-traditional routes, was chosen and the public-facing course content reviewed.

None of the programmes in the review included any course content relating to interpreters or working across language barriers, suggesting that the workforce is being under-prepared to work in this way.”

This means that, of the 3,360 social workers who qualified in 2020 in England (Skills for Care, 2022) and the thousands who have graduated since, none are likely to have undertaken any learning about how to communicate with families via interpreters.

A review of ten North West local authority workforce development provisions drew a similar conclusion. Although some generic, online resources were used to inform practitioners about ethnicity and discrimination, there was limited, inconsistent opportunity for qualified social workers to develop their skills to work with individuals and families via an interpreter.

Practitioner perspectives

The second phase of the research consisted of a series of separate focus groups with social workers and interpreters. Both groups of practitioners were asked to consider their experiences of working together and reflect on barriers, good practice and what they wished their counterparts knew about their profession.

The results developed three umbrella factors, with seven themes split across them.

Knowledge of interpreters’ role

Both groups recognised that social workers needed more knowledge of the role of an interpreter.

“I think if I had a better understanding of their training and their remit and their expectations, I would feel more confident and probably have better interactions when using interpreters.” (social work practitioner)

Basic practical knowledge was also seen as important, and interpreters reported having to be flexible with their approach in order to help social workers complete their meetings.

“I’ve seen some social workers struggle with me interpreting in the first person which is how you have to do it and how I always do it but if I see that after 15 minutes, they’re still struggling, when I say I and she doesn’t know where to look, then I will change.” (interpreter)

Social workers acknowledged that they needed to increase their cultural knowledge to work effectively with families from cultures different to their own.

“I it’s naïve, I hadn’t realised that there were different regions that don’t necessarily understand… it is naivety on my part so now I always make sure I think, “where you are from? Ok, I need someone, can you specifically talk, understand and converse in this region?” Because I wasn’t aware of that at all, and I think training on questions like that help formulate how I do things?’.” (social worker)

Valuing interpreters’ work

Lack of trust between professionals, particularly social workers’ concern about interpreters maintaining confidentiality, was a key challenge to good partnership working.

“Sometimes in your head, you are thinking, ‘are they really communicating what I have communicated or are they saying something else?’.” (social worker)

The perception of interpreters as a barrier rather than a facilitator to communication meant that they often felt excluded or undervalued for the work they do. The attitude of social workers and power dynamics in these interactions weren’t seen as conducive to achieving good outcomes.

“You’re kind of there, but they don’t want you there. The other thing I’ve noticed is that you get treated like you’re quite insignificant, you’re not important, you know, they talk past you like you’re just not there. And that can be… you’re not valued for what you’re providing.” (interpreter)

Skills and support

Both groups saw a gap in relation to briefing and debriefing interpreters about cases, and recognised that despite their emotionally challenging work, interpreters did not have access to the support of supervision as their social work peers did.

“I do not discuss my work ever, with anybody in my family circle. In many of the agencies that we have, we do not have a line manager that we can turn to and offload.” (interpreter)

Being able to book the same interpreter was seen as crucial to relationship building between families and professionals. Both groups perceived this to be an important factor in providing good outcomes for families, but practicalities often prevented this from happening.

“If you’re using the same three people kind of having that conversation you already know each other’s style and what to expect, it kind of, yeah, lowers that anxiety about what’s about to happen.” (social worker)

Messages for practice

Social worker knowledge of the role of interpreters, and the practicalities of communicating via third parties, is low at present, with limited, if any, opportunity to develop this, either during or post qualification. Basic knowledge of the interpreting profession would improve relationships, which would in turn help overcome other current barriers to successful practice

The research clearly demonstrates that there are key, identifiable knowledge, skills and values required for social workers and interpreters to work more cohesively together for the benefit of families and individuals with LEP. Both groups already possess many of these attributes and use them in other aspects of their practice. Both qualified social workers and social work students urgently need the support of education providers and workforce development teams to develop these attributes and make connections between their existing skillset and application to this type of work.

Sarah Pollock is senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University


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3 Responses to Social work with interpreters: lessons from research

  1. Tahin October 27, 2022 at 9:47 am #

    The unsaid though is that we know nothing about the language or practice competence of the interpteters we book from the list approved by our authorities. Nor do we know why and how they get approved. Language competence shouldn’t be the only consideration. For some communities there are significant cultural, political and religious differences that a shared language doesn’t transcend. These are important factors in open communication. Service dependent people don’t always have the confidence to ask about the background of the interpreter and if these factors are at play then open communication doesn’t happen. We use interpreters for our own convenience mainly. We need to demand to know more about them as people before settling for the expediency of their language skills. Other than English, I happen to speak two other languages and have seen on more than one occasion how some interpretes shape the interaction by inserting their own class position and supposed community ‘standing’ into the dynamic. We need to know these factors before we use an interpreter. Some interpreters can add to the anxiety and trauma of service dependent people. We should have proper comprehensive information about their background before we use them. Excellent piece of research, thanks.

  2. Phil Muriel October 27, 2022 at 10:03 am #

    For the past five years or so, I have lectured at my local university, Teesside University for students preparing their Ba and their Ma in social work on how to use an interpreter; this gives them a good start in their work practice as interpreters are increasingly needed in a multi lingual, multi cultural society.

  3. Andy October 29, 2022 at 6:34 pm #

    Cases involving the use of interpreters should be factored into a social worker’s workload because of the increased amount of time required to complete any direct interpersonal communication event.