The impact of language barriers for Latinos across America

Wilson Liévano

Wilson Liévano

The GroundTruth Project
September 14, 2023

A version of this story was published by U.S. News and World Report on September 14, 2023

Every time there’s a neighborhood meeting with the Stockton, CA, Police Department, Griselda Juarez leaves her work early to attend. But more often than not, she goes back home without having voiced her concerns. Juarez doesn’t speak English and often there are no translation services available to understand what information is being given and to allow her to ask questions.

The potentially dangerous consequences of this language gap were highlighted last October when Stockton officials held a town hall meeting to discuss the threat of serial killings in the city since April 2021. The meeting had no Spanish translation, despite Latinos being the most vulnerable population to this threat due to the number of farm employees leaving home before dawn for work. 


Griselda Juarez does the dishes after dinner at her home in Weston Ranch neighborhood in Stockton, Calif., on April 11, 2023. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News/Catchlight Local)

The language barrier is also present in doctors’ offices across the country, where Latinos who don’t speak English struggle to communicate with their healthcare providers, increasing the risks for a misdiagnosis or not understanding the directions and treatment path. According to the Pew Research Center, 44% of the participants in a 2021 survey said that language barriers are a main contributor to Hispanic Americans having worse health outcomes than other adults in the U.S.

In Manchester, NH, Latinos living with elderly  family members who don’t speak English struggle to help them stay active and socially connected. Senior centers offer free classes and activities for older residents, but none of them are in Spanish, nor do they have materials or outreach in their native language. Their explanation for the lack of services relies on stereotypes: Latinos are not interested because, in their culture, the perception is that their family takes care of them.  

Although a 2002 executive order requires all agencies that receive federal funding to provide services to those with limited English proficiency, there are gaps in its implementation at the state and local level, creating a language barrier that too often presents a danger for the lives of the nearly 16 million Latinos who speak English less than “very well,” according to the Census. For them, something as mundane as a visit to the doctor or a parent-teacher conference can become a  fraught interaction where miscommunication can have lasting consequences , as was evidenced by the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 had on the Latino population. 


Ignacio Yepez, a Spanish speaker, listens to Rosa Cardenas, the interpreter, through a audio transmission device during Lodi City Council special meeting at Loel Senior Center in Lodi, Calif., on March 29, 2023. (Photo by Harika Maddala/Bay City News/Catchlight Local)

The issue goes beyond making translation services available. It’s a matter of trust, representation and cultural awareness. A 2013 survey by the University of Illinois at Chicago reported that 44 percent of Latinos surveyed said they are less likely to call the police if they have been victims of a crime for fear of being asked about their immigration status or that of their families. Coupled with the fact that many immigrants don’t know that in many cases they have the right to request an interpreter, this makes an already vulnerable population even more exposed to crime, medical errors and other dangers, also reducing its options to access programs and opportunities that can improve their lives.  

In many states, private organizations and grassroot networks have stepped in to fill the gap. In Yakima Valley, WA, hospitals and health care providers pair certified interpreters with the same healthcare providers so that, over time, they learn their speech patterns and way of communicating: “It’s a lot easier and a lot more fluid when we know the provider and how they speak with a patient,” said Angelina Garcia, language access program manager at Memorial hospital in Yakima. “You usually feel a lot more comfortable when you interpret for the same provider consistently.”

Other hospitals are offering their bilingual doctors the option to get certified as medical interpreters, Spanish immersion programs and video remote interpreting, which connects patients to interpreters via audio or video.


Flerida Moriel and her daughter, Mirla Cabrera came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. Cabrera works long hours and would like to find community and services for her 79-year-old mother, but the language barrier holds them back. (Photo by Gabriela Lozada/NHRP)

Many of these efforts get stalled by a shortage of qualified interpreters and although there are efforts to improve bilingual education in many states, they are way behind in their goals. California, for example, wants to have three out of every four graduates from its school system to be fully bilingual by 2040, but last year only 57,000 students statewide, or 13 percent earned the Seal of Biliteracy, a marking added to a high school diploma for attaining proficiency in one or more languages in addition to English.

These programs also include immigrant children who are learning English as a second language, with an added obstacle: School districts across the country don’t seem to agree on what model is the most effective to teach them English, which leads to uneven learning and different educational outcomes for kids. A lack of bilingual teachers and equity in the policies and strategies also contributes to the problem.

The language barrier manifests as well in the lack of domestic violence counselors that speak more than one language and have the cultural competence to build trust with a survivor; in the absence of tax preparation services in Spanish and in the services offered to Latinos who take care of family members with disabilities.

Despite the setbacks, people like Griselda Juarez continue to push for solutions, recognizing that increasing visibility and representation can lead to change. “I believe that even if we don’t understand, (we should go to the meetings) so they see us and see that people are interested,” she said.

Bertha “Lily” Gonzalez, a Spanish-speaking diabetes specialist, translates a phone call Refugio Cepeda received from another healthcare provider during he and his wife’s appointment with Gonzalez at Memorial Cornerstone Medicine in Yakima, Wash., on Friday, April 7, 2023. (Photo by Emree Weaver / Yakima Herald-Republic)

This story is part of “More than Words,” a Report for America initiative that brought together newsrooms covering Latino communities in eight states to examine the impact of language barriers on the social, economic, and educational advancement of Latinos and the local efforts to close this gap.

This project is made possible by