Social work clients are usually members of underprivileged minorities and of immigrant and refugee groups. Hispanics now make up the country’s largest minority group, with a population of about 37 million according to the 2000 Census. There are many reasons for this, and limited familiarity with English is just one problem. The inability to use English effectively also serves as a roadblock to using social services.
One way to fix this is for Hispanic clients to learn English. Experienced social workers know that clients who live on the margins of society are unlikely to be able to master English. These clients are usually struggling to survive and need help to meeting their basic needs. The role of the social worker is to help needy clients, whether they are individuals, families, groups, or communities.
One necessary skill needed to work with underprivileged people is the ability to communicate across the impediments of race, class, gender, disability status, age, sexual orientation, and language. Social work requirements address most of these barriers but have not taken into account the need to help students overcome language barriers. Social work programs need to help students learn Spanish and enlarge their responsiveness and sensitivity to the needs of Hispanic clients.
To meet the educational standards for social work as set by the Council on Social Work Education (the accrediting body for social work educational programs), social work majors have to complete 80 credit hours in social work studies and related courses. That makes it unfeasible for the social work program to add a foreign language requirement. Most colleges also require specific general studies courses. Unfortunately, the requirements for studying a foreign language are minimal is it exists as all. Most colleges consider foreign language as elective course work.
Social workers need information about many ethnic groups. Descriptions of language, culture, religious institutions, marriage and family patterns, help-seeking behavior, and social mores have been made available for several ethnic groups, with a focus on the most underprivileged. Supplemental texts, written by sociologists on race and ethnicity, also provide a wealth of information on various ethnic groups.
Knowledge of ethnic groups, of social dynamics, and of suitable values and attitudes, are also needed by social workers to help them reach across cultural barriers to provide practice skills.
One cultural anthropologist suggested that social workers should study a variety of cultures in order to better understand minority clients. This was of thinking has influenced social work educators who are focusing on different ways in which social workers and clients view each other, the positions that they occupy in their worlds, and the belief systems of both. The social worker learns the client’s beliefs as she or he works with the client and adjusts his or her approach so that it is acceptable, and helpful to the client.
Social work education stresses the significance of knowledge about and respect for diversity. It also underscores development of cross-cultural practical skills. What is almost overlooked is the need to be able to speak a foreign language as part of these skills.
The Council on Social Work Education does not speak to the issue of learning a foreign language. It concentrates on diversity. Social work programs mix together content that encourages understanding, support, and respect for people from various backgrounds. The content emphasizes the connected and multifaceted nature of culture and personal identity. It guarantees that social services meet the needs of the groups served and are culturally relevant. The National Association of Social Workers has published standards for cultural ability in social work, which includes the following: “Agencies and providers of services are expected to take reasonable steps to provide services and information in appropriate language other than English to ensure that people with limited English proficiency are effectively informed and can effectively participate in and benefit from its programs.”
This idea has not been put into effect in social work education. In an article on preparing social workers for cross-cultural work, social workers are encouraged not to expect clients to speak the worker’s language, but social workers should learn to speak in the client’s. Despite the limited interest in developing second language proficiency in social workers, at least two social work educational programs have added language requirements to their curriculum. An evaluation of the programs showed that students who completed this adapted language immersion program performed better in language skills than did those students who learned through the conventional series of four semester-long Spanish courses.