Bilingual health education: not just about language

2013 is the 35th anniversary of MCWH's bilingual education program, reaching migrant and refugee women all over Australia.
2013 is the 35th anniversary of MCWH’s bilingual education program, reaching migrant and refugee women all over Australia.

If you’ve ever grappled with using youth-speak and text-speak in everyday language, then you might just have an inkling of what it’s like to be a linguistic outsider.  Kevin Rudd aside, most people over the age of 30 don’t feel comfortable using a language clearly not intended for them.  This is how it should be.  All languages, including English, are bound up with culture. How we choose to communicate, whether by slang, sign-language or semaphore, demonstrates explicit membership to a particular community.

Bilingual health education is a bit like another language, in the sense that most monolingual/English-speaking people think they know what it is but don’t really understand or use it.  Bilingual education is often confused and conflated with interpreting and translating, especially by those who don’t have a personal need for it.  To be sure, it is about delivering information in another language, but it’s a lot more than that.

Although bilingual health education meets a practical need in addressing language barriers, it should also been seen as a right and therefore provided as a viable choice.  There are, for example, many immigrant and refugee women who might feel confident conversing in English but there are moments when English—to use a decidedly English phrase—just doesn’t cut it.  Communicating in a language you’re most comfortable with not only addresses the nuances and subtleties present in your native language, but it also provides a way of communicating concepts for which there is no equivalent in English (just consider the 84 words and phrases here).  For example, did you know there is a word in Tagalog (the main Filipino dialect) – ‘gigil’ – that describes the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute?

Another misconception about bilingual health education is that it’s somehow enough to speak the same language, and to share similar characteristics with the relevant community to be a good educator—that there will automatically be some ‘inbuilt’ or natural knowledge about effective ways of delivering information.  We would never think of applying this logic to the white, English-speaking health education workforce, so why does it persist?  As with the broader health services, bilingual health education requires a trained workforce.  A gendered and culturally appropriate approach to bilingual health education means that not everyone can do it: bilingual health educators are not ‘just interpreters’, they are skilled professionals who draw on their own experiences of living within a culture but they also require on-going training in health-related topics including facilitation skills and evaluation. Many women from migrant communities experience their culture differently to men in that culture, to the extent that culturally appropriate education must always consider gender if it is to be truly effective.

As feminists, we continue to argue long and hard about women’s right to exercise control over her body.  If you’re an immigrant or refugee woman, this principle should also extend to the right to control how you receive health information: preferred language as well as the who, how, when and where of information delivery.  To see bilingual health education as solely a matter of language, would devalue the significant role it plays in providing immigrant and refugee women the opportunity to discuss and make informed decisions about their health and wellbeing.