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Home » Blog (hidden) » AN News: “Difficult Interpretations: Linguistic anthropology and access to social services” by Rusty Barrett (U Kentucky), Hilaria Cruz (U Kentucky), and María Luz García (Eastern Michigan U)

AN News: “Difficult Interpretations: Linguistic anthropology and access to social services” by Rusty Barrett (U Kentucky), Hilaria Cruz (U Kentucky), and María Luz García (Eastern Michigan U)

Anthropology News Article

Since 2000, any agency receiving government funding is legally obligated to provide clients with access to interpreters who speak their language. However, finding interpreters for indigenous languages can be difficult. Those of us who research languages from Mexico and Central America have become used to regular requests for help finding interpreters. Even so, cases where no adequate interpreter can be found often have dire consequences. A well-known example is the case of Cirila Baltazar (discussed in the second edition of Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent), a Chatino speaker who had her newborn infant taken away by the state of Mississippi. While the importance of finding interpreters is a central concern, access to an interpreter does not necessarily solve the problem of ensuring that indigenous immigrants have equal access to social services, as problems arising from different cultural norms for specific types of interaction are quite common.

We have been working with local groups in Kentucky and Ohio to try to develop strategies to ensure that cross-cultural communication does not prohibit Mexican and Central American indigenous immigrants from receiving full access to social services. Cruz and Barrett have been working with medical interpreters in Lexington and Louisville to try to develop strategies to improve cross-cultural interactions. García has been working with immigrant groups in Ohio to improve the way lawyers and interpreters elicit depositions for asylum-seekers.   Problems arising from cross-cultural miscommunication permeate such interactions. For example, Chatino speakers may be sensitive to the use of their official name as it appears on their birth certificate. As almost every interaction with government organizations begins with asking for one’s name and date of birth, Chatino speakers may encounter problems the moment an interaction begins. Our project tries to apply the findings of linguistic anthropologists working in Mesoamerica to the everyday issues that arise in healthcare and legal interactions (even in cases where patients are fluent speakers of Spanish). Research on indigenous medical interactions and the structure of conversation in indigenous communities have been extremely helpful in identifying moments where miscommunication might arise from different understandings of how an interaction might proceed.

In his book, Wellness beyond words: Maya Compositions of Speech and Silence in Medical Care, T.S. Harvey discusses a number of ways in which healthcare interactions among the K’iche’ Maya differ from typical Western healthcare interactions. Western healthcare interactions are constructed as binary alternations in which the provider asks a series of questions that the patient is expected to answer. In contrast, indigenous Maya healthcare interactions typically involve more than two individuals. An entire family may participate together and the structure of the interaction is much more fluid than in Western contexts. Any participant may ask or answer questions at any time, so that symptoms are often conveyed by individuals other than the patient. These differences may become critical in cross-cultural contexts. For example, one interpreter told us that a doctor suspected that a patient was a victim of domestic abuse simply because it was her husband (and not the patient herself) who answered the doctor’s questions regarding symptoms.

We have also utilized work by linguistic anthropologists on interactional style in indigenous communities, such as Jill Brody’s work on conversation in Mayan languages. The typical adjacency pair in Maya conversation involves a second part that repeats most (if not all) of the first part of the pair. Displays of disagreement are highly dispreferred in Maya conversation, so that initial expressions of agreement are common. Both of these conversational patterns may result in Western listeners assuming that agreement exists when it doesn’t. Medical interpreters expressed their frustration with what they saw as “false affirmations,” which often required doctors to restart a diagnostic interview from the beginning.

Building on her research on the testimony of Ixhil Maya witnesses in the Rios Montt genocide trial in Guatemala, García has tried to improve communication strategies in criminal and immigration cases. In these legal contexts, the interactional structure of the Western deposition is quite alien for indigenous immigrants. The way in which Western legal narrative requires specific details to be separated from a larger narrative makes very little sense from a Maya perspective. Some Ixhil Maya participants might find it impossible to discern any relationship between the larger problems leading to a request for asylum and the specific details expected within the genre of a legal deposition: Why would one ask for details about the job I had in Guatemala when the important issue is the violence I have experienced?

While we have found the research of a number of linguistic anthropologists extremely helpful in identifying problems in social service interactions, efforts to resolve these problems can be extremely frustrating. It is incumbent upon Western institutions to adapt to indigenous asylees’ diverse communication genres, even if such accommodations are constrained by immutable factors. An awareness that the structure of an asylum interview is problematic for indigenous immigrants may be of little help as long as the legal system accepts only one approach to such interviews. Furthermore, there is often little to no accountability for interpreters of “lesser spoken languages” who may themselves have difficulty navigating the complexities of criminal and immigration legal systems. Such difficulty in accounting for the position of the interpreter resulted in a young Ixhil man spending several additional months in jail during a case evaluated by García, and it is impossible to know consequences for other Ixhil speakers in the United States given the invisibility of the interpreter in court records. Our hope is that we can work more closely with social service providers to bridge such gaps and to reform policies that in effect deny access to fair interpreting. Despite the efforts of well-meaning advocates and/or social service workers, it is usually the indigenous immigrant who is expected to adapt to a Western context that is all too foreign, and it is the indigenous immigrant who ultimately suffers the consequences of miscommunication.


Rusty Barrett is an Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky; Hilaria Cruz is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Kentucky; and María Luz García is an Assistant Professor at Eastern Michigan University.

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