There has never been a greater need for fully bilingual social workers, especially in cities that have had an influx of immigrants. Social work students who are fluent in one other language besides English, and are interested in working with clients who speak that language, will have abundant opportunities in the job market.In this guide
Bilingual social workers can negotiate for more pay due to their ability to work with a more diverse group of clients; they may be the only social worker in a given agency that can take on a caseload of non-English speaking clients. Some bilingual social workers can also earn a considerable per diem income for providing translation or clinical services as needed. Right now, the demand for bilingual social workers is greater than the number of truly bilingual (as opposed to having rudimentary knowledge of a language) social workers.
The growing need for bilingual social work
There is a growing need for bilingual social workers due to the number of immigrants, migrants (undocumented immigrants), and refugees coming to the United States, especially in certain states and cities. It is important not only to serve immigrant clients in their native language, but also for bilingual social workers to understand current issues and challenges immigrant communities are facing such as disrimination, lack of access to jobs, language barriers, high rates of domestic violence, children’s educational needs, community violence, among other challenges.
Specializing in social work with immigrants is a subfield of social work that some bilingual social work students may be interested in pursuing. This work involves helping immigrants navigate the process of getting a green card or becoming a naturalized citizen, finding work, obtaining needed services, acclimating to a new culture, and perhaps helping refugee immigrants process trauma they have faced in the past.
There are certain regions of the country where bilingual social workers fluent in Spanish are particularly in demand due to the large number of migrants crossing the border from Central American countries, and at times (fluctuates based on economic conditions) Mexico. Border states such as Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona become home to a large number of Central American migrants seeking refuge from poverty and violence in their countries.
Border states are not the only areas seeing large numbers of migrants and immigrants from Central America, however. Many migrants enter the country then head to cities across the country where they may have family prepared to help them. Some of these cities include New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco.
According to research published in 2021 by the Migration Policy Institute, in 2019 there were close to 4 million Central American immigrants living in the United States. The majority of immigrants from this region were from El Salvador and Guatemala. Among all Central American migrants and immigrants in the U.S. approximately 66 percent have limited English language proficiency, with only 7 percent speaking English only at home.
Of course, there are also other groups of primarily Spanish speaking immigrants and Americans throughout the country who need bilingual social work services.
According to the Pew Institute, Florida, for example, has experienced immense growth in the Hispanic/Latino population in the past decade. A Business Insider article points out that states with the highest percentage of bilingual or primarily Spanish speaking residents are Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California.
Cities with more Spanish than English speakers are located predominantly in these four states, but a few are located in other states. They include Rio Grande, Texas; Nogales, Arizona; Salinas, California; Las Cruces, New Mexico; Othello Washington; and Liberal, Kansas.
Bilingual social workers are also needed in cities where large numbers of Asian and African immigrants have settled. According to PBS, over the past 20 years the Asian American population has grown faster than the Hispanic/Latino population, in large part due to increased immigration from China, India, and the Philippines. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2019, 42 percent of Asian immigrants had limited English proficiency.
States with large communities of Asian immigrants include California, Texas, and New York. Cities with the largest numbers of Mandarin speakers are Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.
After Mandarin, the most frequently spoken languages in these cities are Tagalog (including Filipino), Vietnamese, French, Korean, Hindi, Arabic, and Urdu. Bilingual social workers who speak Mandarin and other Asian languages are especially needed at this time as Asian immigrants and citizens have faced a resurgence of attacks during, and in the wake of, the Covid-19 pandemic.
Predominantly French or French/Creole speaking African immigrants is another community in need of bilingual social work services. According to the US Census Bureau, cities with large French speaking immigrant populations include New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington D.C., and Miami. In 2022, the job search site Indeed listed more than 50 job openings for French speaking bilingual social and human service workers in New York State.
Bilingual social work services
It is important that immigrants and others who primarily speak a language other than English receive comprehensive social services and therapy in their native language. Bilingual social workers will be responsible for assessing and treating clients in their native language.
Many widely used clinical assessments, such as for suicidal ideation, mental health disorders, or trauma symptoms have been translated into languages other than English. Bilingual social workers must be familiar with these translated instruments and comfortable administering them to non-English speaking clients.
PAR Inc, a publisher of mental health assessment tools publishes translated clinical assessments in multiple languages including Spanish, Korean, Farsi, and French. These translations are vetted and back-translated for utmost accuracy in communicating clinical concepts in different languages. Some of these translated assessments are available online for free and are readily usable.
Bilingual school social workers are in great demand as the current generation of young people, the most diverse generation in U.S. history, move through the K-12 public education system.
Children and teens who are not proficient in English should receive school counseling and guidance services in their native language. Even if children are bilingual, but their parents are not, providing family counseling in the parents’ native language will increase parents’ involvement in their child’s education and well-being.
Cultural competence will not be achieved in therapeutic and other social services if clients need services in their native language but cannot access non-English services. An important component of cultural competency is obtaining linguistically appropriate services for non-English speaking immigrants and other clients.
There is an inherent power imbalance between social worker and client, when a client is not able to fully benefit from, or even comprehend, services being delivered due to a language barrier.
Having a non-clinical work translator is second best, because not only can translators fail to capture the nuances of what is being discussed, misinterpret what is being said especially if they are not a social worker, or they may interpret content in a culturally-centric manner because of a lack of context.
Even having another social worker translate for you can lead to miscommunication since that social worker is not directly handling the client’s case and does not have access to the client’s full background, including all of the associated paperwork and information (which you may have in English) needed to fully understand the client’s situation.
Bilingual social work education
It is important for social work students interested in bilingual social work to be properly trained and prepared for working in the field. Without proper preparation, a bilingual student can become overwhelmed.
For example, one of my bilingual social work students said she felt overworked and burdened with being the only Spanish/English bilingual social worker at her agency. She felt she was pushed into working only with Spanish speaking clients despite wanting to have a diverse caseload.
Students and professionals should never be placed in the role of de facto translator or service provider because they speak a second language. Students and professionals should have a say in how their linguistic abilities are used at work. Students also can become burned out from constantly having to “translate” their English language learning to competently serve non-English speaking clients.
Special consideration should be given in the education and preparation of bilingual social workers. Prospective BSW and MSW students interested in bilingual social work should speak to programs they are interested in to find out if they offer extra support and specialized field work for bilingual students.
There are several university-based certificate programs for bilingual students and/or social workers. Some of these certificate programs place students with agencies serving non-English speaking clients and some offer travel abroad opportunities. Here are a few examples:
- Adelphi University in NY offers a post-master’s bilingual school social work certificate that prepares social workers to work with bilingual students in schools across New York State (state school social work certification required). The certificate program offers classes at convenient times, including evenings and weekends.
- Rutgers University offers the LISTA: Latina/o/x Initiatives for Service, Training, and Assessment certificate program for current MSW students interested in serving Spanish speaking clients.
- The University of Denver offers an MSW certificate in Latinx social work for current social work students interested in serving Spanish speaking clients. Internships are available as are study abroad opportunities.
For undergrads, Daemen University offers a program for students interested in bilingual human services work. Students can minor or major in Spanish while majoring or minoring in Social Work while also participating in a field internship.
Social workers with education degrees may also be interested in earning a certificate from an education program (e.g. Touro College) that prepares teachers to work with English learners in K-12 settings.
Some schools offer courses for students interested in bilingual social work. For example, a University of Chicago course prepares students for bilingual social work with Spanish speaking clients by strengthening students’ diction and phonetics, and building their cultural competence.
The University of Illinois designed a course to train social work students fluent in Spanish to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy to Spanish speaking clients. Prospective students interested in bilingual social work should find out which schools offer courses in bilingual social work, or classes and training in a language other than English.
There also are some opportunities to receive continuing education or professional training in languages other than English. For example, The Latinx Center of Excellence in Behavioral Health (LCOEBH) at the Berkeley School of Social Welfare has offered CBT training in Spanish. The Center also provides stipends to students working in immigrant communities and delivering bilingual services.
The bottom line
There are abundant opportunities for current social work students and working professionals to deliver bilingual social work services. Bilingual social workers should negotiate higher pay since they have exceptional skills in working with diverse clients.
Providing therapeutic services is only one area that bilingual social workers can work in. Bilingual social workers also are needed to act as community advocates and organizers, agency and school administrators, and to run for elective office. The talents of students who are bilingual, especially those who are first generation Americans, are urgently needed to serve their communities at a time of rapid social and cultural change.
Non-English speaking clients have the right to receive comprehensive, culturally competent services. Providing such services also is a social justice issue, as studies have shown that non-English speakers often do not receive the same quality of services as English speakers or may lack access to services altogether.