Tips for Working with a Language Interpreter

Article | March 2014

Tips for Working with a Language Interpreter

How to help your patients when they need an interpreter

In today's cross-cultural society, and diversity in the general population expected to grow in future years, you may experience an increasing need for language interpreters to help create an optimal experience for you and your limited English proficient speaking patients. We hope you find the following tips to be helpful in your interactions with language interpreters.

Assess which type of interpreter services to use

  • Telephone interpreter services are easily accessed and available for short conversations or unusual language requests
  • Face-to-face interpreter services provide the best communication for sensitive, legal, or lengthy communications
  • Trained bilingual staff provides consistent patient interactions for a large number of patients
  • Minors and family members that patients wish to use as interpreters are discouraged in order to ensure reliable, accurate patient communication

Working with an interpreter

  • Acknowledge the interpreter as a communications professional
  • Briefly introduce yourself to the interpreter (name and nature of the call or visit), and describe the type of information you are planning to talk about with your patient
  • Give the interpreter the opportunity to introduce themselves to the patient
  • Recognize the interpreter is the medium, not the source, of the message and that they are not responsible for what the patient says or doesn't say

During the session

  • Allow enough time for the interpretation session
  • Speak in the first person directly to (or facing) your patient, instead of speaking to the interpreter
  • Speak clearly, at an even pace, and pause occasionally to ask the interpreter if they understand the information you are providing and the questions you are asking
  • Remember, you do not need to speak especially slowly. This actually makes a competent interpreter's job more difficult
  • Avoid interrupting during interpretation
  • In some languages, it may take longer to explain a word or a concept
  • Read body language in the cultural context
  • Watch the patient's eyes, facial expressions, and body language. Look for signs of comprehension, confusion, agreement, or disagreement.

Once you have identified your patient's preferred language, it may be helpful to document the language on paper or in electronic medical records. Posting colored stickers on the patient's chart to flag when an interpreter is needed (e.g., orange for Spanish, yellow for Vietnamese, green for Russian) may also be helpful for easy reference.

New Mexico and California laws

New Mexico and California state laws require health plans to provide language assistance program services to eligible health plan enrollees with limited English proficiency. For more details on these services, please access your state-specific reference guides at You must be a registered user to access this site.

New Mexico Providers Only: Each contract requires the health care insurer or Managed Health Care Plan (MHCP) to provide interpreters for limited English proficient (LEP) individuals and interpretative services for patients who qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Such interpretive services will be made available to the provider's office at no cost to the provider.*

If you prefer to receive a paper copy or CD-ROM, please call 1 (877) 581-8912.

* New Mexico Administrative Code (NMAC)

Interpretation and Translation Services

Cigna provides access to discounts on language assistance services for your patients needing interpreters or translators.

Download this simple survey [PDF] (in English and Spanish) to help identify if your patient needs an interpreter or translator.