Language and Occupation

For our April 2020 Occupational Justice for Newcomers Network (OJNN) meeting, we decided to focus on language and occupation. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, OJNN has been compiling accurate and accessible multi-lingual resources. While resources in multiple languages are but one small part of just and equitable healthcare, we feel it is a necessary social determinant of health to address. We recognize that the complexities of language and occupational engagement warrant further attention. For this reason, we focused on three areas in our last meeting: 1) updating and expanding multi-lingual COVID-19 resources, 2) delving into occupational science research on the topic, and 3) reviewing best practices when working with interpreters in healthcare settings.

1. Multi-lingual COVID-19 resources

We continue to gather and organize COVID-19 resources in multiple languages on this website. OJNN member Eliza Garland Quinn, an Occupational Therapist working with newcomers with low literacy levels in English as an Additional Language (EAL) programming, raised some important points and strategies to consider when developing and sharing multi-lingual resources. She recommends taking into account the person’s literacy level and whether the languages they speak have a written form, as some languages are predominantly oral. In these situations, creating resources with real-life images (e.g., photographs) can be more helpful.

In the future, OJNN plans to compile multi-lingual resources specific to occupational therapy.  We would love to hear from you if you have suggestions and ideas of OT resources that would be most supportive for your practice.

2. The power of language: Exploring the relationship between linguistic capital and occupation for immigrants to Canada (Huot et al., 2020)

We were lucky enough to have Dr. Suzanne Huot, Assistant Professor in the Department of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy at the University of British Columbia join us for the meeting. We read and discussed the paper she wrote with Ana Can, Jiwon Kim, Milad Shajari and Tamara Zimonjic on the ways language can facilitate or bar occupational engagement. The authors draw on Bourdieu’s work to conceptualize language as a form of (social) “capital that is mediated through social power relations” (Huot et al., 2020, p. 95). Grounded in their qualitative secondary analysis of 20 interview transcripts of newcomers in London, Ontario, the authors find that ‘learning English’ is an overarching theme connected to four sub-themes: 1) accessing resources during settlement, 2) economic integration, 3) social and cultural integration, and 4) family.

Ultimately, integration, occupational engagement and language are not just about newcomers solely bearing the responsibility of  ‘learning English’ as an isolated skill. It is more holistic. Huot et al.’s (2020) work shows us the importance of considering broader system level barriers, such as  lack of access to interpreters and inflexible language instruction formats or schedules. Further, we must consider the ways cultural practices in Canada create barriers for effective communication, such as use of jargon and colloquialisms, and speaking too quickly. Underlying these practices and systemic barriers are cultural attitudes that pass judgment on accents and devalue proficiencies in minority or unofficial languages. In this way, the unquestioned dominance of English in Canada is a gatekeeper to occupational access, participation and engagement.

Be sure to read the article! We had a fascinating conversation where members shared their insights about the importance of occupation-based language learning. More resources and discussion to come in this important area!

3. Best practices for working with interpreters in healthcare settings 

We encourage you to look up the recent webinar by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Immigrant and Refugee Mental Health Project called: Working effectively with interpreters – working together to improve mental health outcomes across language barriers. Some of the highlights to emerge include:

  • Work with a trained interpreter
  • Know whether you need a cultural interpreter, community interpreter, or Over the Phone (OPI) / Video Remote Interpreter (VRI)
  • Respect the interpreter’s role, standards of practice and ethical principles

You can access an overview with more tips on preparing for sessions and debriefing by viewing the OJNN April 20, 2020 Meeting Presentation. Additionally, you may be interested in the Mental Health Interpreting Guidelines for Interpreters by Jim Hlavac at Monash University, Australia (2017).

Wishing you all well,

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