HumanIT Blog

What Variations in Dialect Can Teach Us about Better Interpretation

September 18, 2019

Written By: By Seth Lawton, Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications


When I moved from the northeast to central Ohio a couple years ago, I expected some amount of adjustment. I had heard that I might have to order ‘pop’ instead of ‘soda.’ And somewhere along the way I learned that New Englanders lacing up their ‘sneakers’ are in the minority; most of the country puts on ‘tennis shoes.’ Even when, inexplicably to me, they are not playing tennis. But one linguistic format I wasn’t prepared for is when folks say: the dishes need washed; the car needs fixed; the dog needs walked. My adoptive state, I decided, needs infinitives.

But then, as a native Bay Stater, who am I to be prescriptive about language? Where I come from, it sounds the same whether folks refer to their tan pants or the jangly vehicle starters in their pockets. And a listener needs context clues to know whether one is referring to a silky fabric or the sixth planet from the sun. (When new acquaintances ask why I don’t talk like that, I tell them the truth—I take after my mother, not my fah-thuh.)

Confusing ‘car keys’ for ‘khakis’ is matter of accent, which is part of our regional dialects. More than just pronunciation differences, regional dialects also include lexical differences such as your word choice for a ‘rotary,’ a ‘traffic circle,’ and a ‘roundabout.’ These are just some quick examples from the automotive realm—think about all the language variations that exist and have the potential to cause miscommunication.

Sarah Stockler-Rex is a colleague of mine who specializes in training and quality assurance, and who recently presented a session on the variations in English language dialects at the Texas Association of Healthcare Interpreters and Translators annual symposium. It’s an important but easily overlooked topic; companies that support medical language services tend to focus mainly on interpretation and cultural differences between different languages. But it’s also necessary to explore those English dialect variations, including those Englishes used by our providers from other parts of the globe, and how a deeper understanding of this can enhance interpreter comprehension, and thus support better outcomes.

Some of the examples I offered above focus on dialectal differences among regions of the country. But apart from geography, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status can all have an impact on the dialect an English speaker uses as well. Oh, and don’t forget age. Do generational differences have an impact on dialect? You can bet your britches on it.

To ensure optimal coverage and flexibility, the network of professionals supporting Martti comprises eight different language centers in regions across the United States. So not only do the patients and providers who we interact with represent different dialects, but so do our interpreter staff. On a daily basis, our team encounters words or phrases that may cause a person to lean in and may require clarification.

That’s why training on these topics is so important—when interpreters know what to listen for, it makes comprehension easier. A primary goal of training interpreters in English dialects is to help them become better listeners and more keenly attuned to detecting patterns.

But at the core of dialectic differences is the concept of respect. As a former Bostonian, I still find it incomprehensible that some folks from the region can drop their ‘r’s in one place and yet manage to add them where they don’t belong: “Building a pah-king garage on this lot would be a terrific i-dear.” It’s head-scratching, to be sure, but it underscores the key point. There are undeniable variations in accents and dialects, and languages have always and will always shift and evolve. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just a thing. And it’s an opportunity to learn more from each other, see other perspectives, and pave the way for improved communications.

Ultimately, we should focus on the ways that language can bring us together. Depending on your background, some folks say ‘pill bug’ while others say ‘roly poly.’ Let’s get beyond our differences and instead focus on a term we can all agree on: ‘exterminator.’