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date: 23 November 2017

Summary and Keywords

For many decades, the field of risk messaging design, situated within a broader sphere of public health communication efforts, has endeavored to improve its response to the needs of U.S. immigrant and refugee populations who are not proficient speakers of English, often referred to as limited English proficient (LEP) populations. Research and intervention work in this area has sought to align risk messaging design models and strategies with the needs of linguistically diverse patient populations, in an effort to improve patient comprehension of health messages, promote informed decision-making, and ensure patient safety. As the public health field has shifted from person-centered approaches to systems-centered thinking in public health outreach and communication, the focus in risk messaging design, in turn, has moved from a focus on the effects of individual patient misunderstanding and individual patient error on health outcomes, to structural and institutional barriers that contribute to breakdown in communication between patients and healthcare providers.

While the impact of limited proficiency in English has been widely documented in multiple spheres of risk messaging communication research, the processes by which members of immigrant and refugee communities actually come to understand sources of risk and act on risk messaging information remain poorly researched and understood. Advances in risk messaging efforts are constrained by outdated views of language and communication in healthcare contexts: well-established lines of thinking in sociolinguistics and language education provide the basis for critical reflection on enduring biases in public health about languages other than English and the people who speak them. By drawing on important findings about language ideologies and language learning, an alternative approach would be to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the linguistic diversity already shaping our everyday lives and the competing views on this diversity that constrain our risk messaging efforts.

The discourse surrounding the relationship between LEP and risk messaging often omits a critical examination of the deficit-based narrative that tends to infuse many risk messaging design efforts in the United States. Sociolinguists and language education specialists have documented the enduring struggle against a monolingual bias in U.S. education and healthcare policy that often privileges proficiency in English, and systematically impedes and discriminates against emerging bilingualism and multilingualism. The English-only bias tends to preclude the possibility that risk messaging comprehension for many immigrant and refugee communities may represent a multilingual capacity, as patients make use of multiple linguistic and cultural resources to make sense of healthcare messages. Research in sociolinguistics and immigration studies have established that movement across languages and cultures—a translingual, transcultural competence—is a normative component of the immigrant acculturation process, but these research findings have yet to be fully integrated into risk messaging theory and design efforts. Ultimately, critical examination of the role of language and linguistic identity (not merely a focus on proficiency in English) in risk messaging design should provide a richer, more nuanced picture of the ways that patients engage with health promotion initiatives, at diverse levels of English competence.

Keywords: linguistic diversity, cultural diversity, limited English proficient (LEP), immigrant and refugee communities, language ideologies, risk communication, health communication, language brokering

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