Mexican Indigenous Languages

  • Posted In: Q&A
  • We get some great questions and responses in our CLAStalk email discussion list and occasionally we share them here with the permission of the authors. These have been edited for brevity, privacy, and clarity.



    1. Do you know of any current interpreter training programs in the U.S. that are training people to interpret Mexican indigenous languages into English?

    2. Does anyone have any idea how frequently these interpreters are called upon to interpret; once a week, once a month, etc?

    3. What indigenous languages are being taught?

    4. How long are the training programs? 40 hours? 50 hours?


    I was just looking over Cyracom's list of languages for which they are recruiting and noticed a few indigenous languages from Mexico. They train all of their phone interpreters in medical interpreting, and also contract their training services to other organizations, if I'm not mistaken.  Bridging the Gap, which can be found  in many health care systems in metropolitan areas, offers great basic training for interpreters of any language.  In the Northeastern United States lots of different systems have created training programs of their own that are sometimes offered to the general public. 

About the only medical interpreter training program that I know of that actually focuses on speakers of a particular target language is the Spanish Bilingual Assistant training (which is one that really works for medical interpreting in general, not just for bilingual assistants). Otherwise, programs are geared toward training in standards and protocols for interpreting in health care and how to go about looking for and acquiring knowledge and vocabulary in your target area.

    M. Grace Vega
    Language Services Coordinator
    University of Missouri Health Care


    There are some organizations in California that do training for interpreters for some of the indigenous languages, mostly Oaxacan indigenous languages — Trique, Mixteco, Zapotec, etc.  Some of the interpreter programs train to interpret between Spanish and the indigenous language or English and the indigenous language. It is hard to measure how often they are used as the Medicaid system does not record and pass on to health plans the indigenous languages of beneficiaries. Individual health plans keep track of requests for interpreters by language for California residents.  We do provide interpreters for these languages
(telephone and face-to-face), but the services are greatly under-used!

    Diana M. Carr
    Health Net of California
    Manager, Cultural and Linguistic Services


    I don't have experience with training indigenous speakers from Mexico, but I'm currently training Guatemalan-Mayan speakers (Kiche, Kanjobal, Mam) in medical interpreting.  I designed the program in both Spanish and English medical terminology specifically for them. They work in groups to formulate the most appropriate terminology in their respective languages. Part 1 of the program is an online program, so I supplement the lessons with conference calls, and discussion forums. Part 2 is a 2-day onsite workshop on medical interpreting principles (standards, ethics, roles, and hands-on skills training and testing). The program was intended to be 40 hours long but we are going to spend more a lot more than 40 hours by the time we're done with Part 2. 

One of the greatest benefits of the online training is that it is bringing this group of talented and enthusiastic people who are dispersed throughout the US to get to know each other and work together through the Internet. The program is also helping them relearn their own languages, and even do some research on their own terminology. It's a very interesting process and a great learning experience for me as well!

     Marlene V. Obermeyer, MA, RN

    Director, Cultural Advantage


    I would like to chime in since I can relate to some of Marlene's comments. Our hospital deals with Mexican indigenous languages as well.  However, in trying to solve the need to communicate with Lahu patients, I was able to enlist the help of a group of young Lahu-speaking staff members.  Although they were also eager to help their community and could communicate on a general level, they were hesitant about just how much medical terminology they could convey. We met as a group on several occasions realizing that their language skills needed to be tested.  There was no test available.  We enlisted the help of a local agency, The Asian Coalition, who had a test for another language — Mien. The coalition recommended individuals from the community who were working as interpreters and the staff agreed on one who would test them. This particular gentleman's skill was held in high regard within the Lahu community. It was important that the staff selected the person — not that I chose for them. The Asian Coalition trained the interpreter to test the staff.  Two categories were identified — general and advanced.  Once they were tested, we continued to meet and the concern about medical terminology came up again.  I brought anatomy charts to the meetings that followed. Part by part we discussed  body parts and identified each with an appropriate term. Some staff knew more than others; but together they agreed on the appropriate word so that there would be consistency. We had a lot of fun and learned from each other.  We soon had the parts of the body identified in Lahu along with a phonetic pronunciation (for me). When we completed the anatomy charts, they tested me!  They also recommended a book for me to learn about their culture — Peoples of the Golden Triangle by Paul and Elaine Lewis. In this case, teaching was learning. What I have learned from them I can now teach as part of a workshop which our Nurse Educators call our Professional Nursing Development Potpourri. These workshops are held quarterly and I present information about the Mixteco and Lahu speakers. 

    Trying to work with languages not widely spoken can be a challenge. Thinking out of the box is a must.

    Gloria Grijalva, MS
    Interpreter Services Manager
    Bridging the Gap Cultural Competency Trainer
    Kaweah Delta Health Care District


    Find Resources