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Open Access Correspondence

Overcoming language barriers in community-based research with refugee and migrant populations: options for using bilingual workers

Susan K Lee1*, Cheryl R Sulaiman-Hill2 and Sandra C Thompson3

Author Affiliations

1 Community Development Services Manager, Women’s Health and Family Services, Perth, Western Australia

2 Research Fellow, Combined Universities Centre for Rural Health, University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia

3 Winthrop Professor, Chair of Rural Health, University of Western Australia and Director, Combined Universities Centre for Rural Health, Geraldton, Western Australia

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BMC International Health and Human Rights 2014, 14:11  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-14-11

Published: 12 April 2014

Abstract

Background

Although the challenges of working with culturally and linguistically diverse groups can lead to the exclusion of some communities from research studies, cost effective strategies to encourage access and promote cross-cultural linkages between researchers and ethnic minority participants are essential to ensure their views are heard and their health needs identified. Using bilingual research assistants is one means to achieve this. In a study exploring alcohol and other drug service use by migrant women in Western Australia, bilingual workers were used to assist with participant recruitment and administration of a survey to 268 women who spoke more than 40 different languages.

Discussion

Professional interpreters, bilingual students, bilingual overseas-trained health professionals and community sector bilingual workers were used throughout the research project. For the initial qualitative phase, professional interpreters were used to conduct interviews and focus group sessions, however scheduling conflicts, inflexibility, their inability to help with recruitment and the expense prompted exploration of alternative options for interview interpreting in the quantitative component of the study. Bilingual mature-age students on work placement and overseas-trained health professionals provided good entry into their different community networks and successfully recruited and interviewed participants, often in languages with limited interpreter access. Although both groups required training and supervision, overseas-trained health professionals often had existing research skills, as well as understanding of key issues such as confidentiality and referral processes. Strategies to minimise social desirability bias and the need to set boundaries were discussed during regular debriefing sessions. Having a number of workers recruiting participants also helped minimise the potential for selection bias. The practical and educational experience gained by the bilingual workers was regarded as capacity building and a potentially valuable community resource for future health research projects.

Summary

The use of bilingual workers was key to the feasibility and success of the project. The most successful outcomes occurred with students and overseas-trained health professionals who had good community networks for recruitment and the required linguistic skills. By describing the advantages and disadvantages encountered when working with bilingual workers, we offer practical insights to assist other researchers working with linguistically diverse groups.

Keywords:
Bilingual workers; Cross cultural research; Migrants; Refugees; Communication; Interpreting