Chicago Bilingual programs

Speaking your language

Chicago is a city filled with diversity. According to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 30 percent of people living in the Chicagoland area speak a language other than English at home. The most common is by far Spanish, the primary language spoken by roughly 18 percent of Chicagoland residents age 5 and up. Following it are Polish, Arabic, Tagalog, and Chinese.

But what happens when people who primarily speak a language other than English need to seek out medical care, social services, or other assistance? Those language barriers—which are often accompanied by cultural barriers—can be a stumbling block to receiving much needed services. Loyola University Chicago is working to address those language barriers by training professionals in bilingual services across fields and disciplines.

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Meeting the Need

Social work is often a calling—intimately supporting families requires patience, compassion, and extensive training. But add language and cultural barriers, and the profession becomes even more challenging. That’s why the School of Social Work is launching an entirely online bilingual master’s degree program this fall, with the goal of ensuring that Latino communities have access to social workers who understand their unique needs.

Edgar Ramirez, executive director of Chicago Commons, one of the city’s largest social service organizations, said bilingual, bicultural staff are incredibly important—especially in areas with high immigrant populations like Chicago.

“If you have folks who represent the organization and can speak the client’s language but also have a particular interest in or knowledge of their background and the struggles they are facing, that’s a sign of an institution that really understands the community they are serving,” he said. “A client will sense that and probably be more willing to enroll in your services.”
—Edgar Ramirez, executive director of Chicago Commons

In Chicago, nearly one-third of residents are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census, and 18 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic. The Pew Research Center finds that Hispanics constitute the second largest ethno-racial group in the nation, so the graduate degree’s targeted approach is a welcomed solution for those like Ramirez. The program is the first of its kind in the mainland U.S., with more than 90 percent of the courses developed and taught by faculty members proficient in Spanish.

One goal of the program: preventing children from having to serve as mediators between their families and social workers. It’s a dynamic the School of Social Work identifies as an injustice—and an experience Ramirez lived growing up.

“My parents were Mexican immigrants, and often our eldest brother would have to be the translator to help us sign up for services,” he said. “We see many kids put in that situation. That’s not a role a child should play. Institutions should have staff available who can do that.”

He notes that it’s often the nuances in service delivery, like linguistic ability and cultural awareness of the subtler aspects that clients face, that can make all the difference with successful outcomes.

“When a client comes into our doors—and at most social service agencies—it’s for a very sensitive need or something that’s very personal for them,” he said. “If the social worker knows the conditions the client is living in and can get everything that they’re saying in their own language, then what we can offer the client is that much better because we know the total context.”

Mariana Osoria, vice president of Centers at Family Focus Illinois, echoes that Spanish-speaking master’s-level employees are critical for organizations like hers and those they partner with.

“We have been challenged to find qualified bilingual candidates who also have the degree requirements, so having a program like this will help those who are interested gather the education and credentials needed for current openings,” she said. A social worker who possesses a deep understanding of the Latino culture can be particularly helpful in what is often an already delicate situation. “That can really reduce hurdles,” she said.

These trained social workers can find themselves needed in public and private mental health settings, government entities, schools, and hospitals. “Data continues to demonstrate growth in the Latino population across the country,” said Osoria. “And there are language access issues in almost every sector of human services, like mental health, medical care, and education.”

Ramirez said that while his organization has been fortunate in finding social workers who can navigate these hurdles, the need is great. “We’ve been lucky to have social workers who are culturally competent and can speak the language. But the demand for them is really high. And if there is a program that cultivates them, that just makes the service delivery space that much stronger.”