Grandfather with adult son and grandchild

Rules to Engagement – It’s Not Just a Language Barrier

Written by Andrea Matias-Lemoine, Service Coordinator, Mecklenburg County CDSA

What if you were to wake up tomorrow morning in a country where you do not know the language, culture, laws, and system… ?  What if, in addition to that, you have a child with special needs and desperately need assistance?  Where do you go?  Who do you speak with?

Many of the families we work with come from other countries, and each of them has a story that marks their past, present, and future.  As early interventionists, we must pay attention to the needs, priorities, similarities, and differences of the families we work with.

Immigrants are confronted with various psychological conflicts when they realize that they must learn a new language, understand a different culture, create a new support system, and, in some cases, even make modifications or adjustments to their identity.  Some of them may experience a condition called Ulysses Syndrome.  This term was coined by Dr. Achotegui from the University of Barcelona and refers to a set of symptoms experienced by immigrants who struggle with their adaptation to a different culture.  He identified a minimum of seven different migratory hardships and/or severe stressors that immigrants experience.

I was born in Argentina, and my answer when people would inquire where I was from used to be very simple… I am from Argentina or Argentinean.  However, I soon discovered that I was also “Latina/Hispanic” and learned what this term meant to others.  Hispanic or Latino is just a term used to identify a category in the Census form.  “The designation has since been used in local and federal employment, mass media, academia, and business market research.  It has been used in the U.S. Census since 1980.  Because of the popularity of “Latino” in the western portion of the United States, the government adopted this term as well in 1997, and used it in the 2000 census.”  (Wikipedia)

For me, it is more than that. It is a multifaceted term to identify a rich mix of values, norms, traditions, and dialects. In my opinion, the following are some points that characterize the Hispanic/Latino culture:

  • Yes, we all speak Spanish, but with different variations.  Spanish is a rich language and has many different dialects, even within one country.
  • Family is very important in our lives. We value our families and extended families, too. We were raised to respect and care about family, especially where the elderly have a significant role in the dynamic of the family.
  • We are very social and enjoy personal interactions.  Being surrounded by people is an essential part of our identity, and we share a communication that transcends the spoken language.  Non-verbal communication is an important component too.  We are emotional and expressive.  We use facial expressions, physical touch, hand and body movement, voice pitch, and sounds.
  • The transmission of traditions in regards to beliefs, celebrations, practices, and stories are passed from one generation to another, particularly in oral form. You may go to a family’s home and observe the preparation of a piñata for a child birthday party, a special cake for a teenage girl for her Quinceañera (15th birthday party), or even the set up the nativity scene at Christmas time.

Wait, at this point you may be thinking, “So, what is the difference between me and the Hispanic/Latinos community?”  In truth, many of these characteristics may sound familiar to you because you recognize them from your own family or from other families you work with from non-Latino backgrounds.  The reality is that America is a mixture of different cultures, beliefs, values, traditions, and norms.  What makes us different actually makes us similar, and, if we want to create a deeper understanding of diversity as providers, we need to start with a deeper understanding of ourselves.  Every family is unique unto itself, regardless of the ethnic origin of its members.  While many Latino/Hispanic families may possess the characteristics mentioned before, you will also find families that are different, perhaps being more reserved or celebrating different family traditions. Working with diverse families means, not only providing services in their language, but also taking the time to become familiar with the beliefs, traditions, and social interactions that create the unique culture of each family.  Only with that perspective can we create a process of reflection where, as early interventionists, we can improve our capacity to be empathetic and assist parents during their path in the early intervention program to best support their children.  

So the next time you work with a family that comes from another country think about this… it is not a language barrier… don’t you agree?


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11 Responses to Rules to Engagement – It’s Not Just a Language Barrier

  1. Christine Milano March 19, 2014 at 2:58 pm #


  2. Tina March 19, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

    Well said. I like your perspective, food for thought, what makes us different makes us the same.

  3. Dana Childress March 19, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

    Great post, Andrea. You make a wonderful point about there being differences within cultures too. It can be too easy to group family characteristics by ethic background, when in reality every family is unique. I also like your point about considering our own cultural values and beliefs. Each of us brings our own beliefs to every relationship with families so it really is an interaction, rather than just a language barrier. Thanks for sharing this information and your own personal experience!

    • Muhammad Abdullah March 24, 2014 at 9:54 pm #


      Impressive and insightful. Informative and engaging. Well written and persuasive. Eye opening and inclusive in perspective, I love it. There is so much I want to say. But I can tell you that the diversity within respective cultures is something that those who are outside the respective culture often fail to realize. When I was on the Yale Admissions committee and Yale’s Director of Minority Recruitment, I worked with all the “minority and ethnically diverse” groups that applied to Yale. On the committee, I often had to make the very same arguments you are making here as well, in helping the Committee understand and evaluate the diversity in our respective communities. You and your entire family are incredible, and you make the lives of all you touch so much richer. Thank you for sharing this wonderful essay. So honored to know you and call you a dear friend. As we say in our community; speaking in the vernacular: “ya mama raised you right.” And you are carrying on that same tradition.

  4. Kesha March 19, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

    Excellent read! Thanks Andrea for sharing your personal story and opening our minds to what will transcend into new and improved interactions.

  5. Heidy March 20, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    Great job Andrea! Thanks for taking the time to present these very particular characteristics of our culture. Hispanics are very open to try, learn and explore new adventures. Some are lucky enough to do it with their own family and friends, some others just can’t resist the opportunities life presents, and do it with all our heart, creating a new “family” wherever we go and sharing every bit of happiness we have access to. That’s why when a family is facing and adversity, a “friendly” hand smoothes the way…

  6. Dalys March 21, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

    Such a great perspective! So many great points to think about. Thank you for sharing my friend 🙂

  7. Sandra Gonzales March 24, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    Excellent work, Andrea. I am proud of you, friend. If we all behave in the same way, it will be so bored and unflavored , right??
    It is in our human nature to assume and presume about other culture because the way they look. And we all sometime had fail in our assumptions (I am so guilty of it). However, culture is more than that and I love how you point out. Culture is more than the language we speak, our race, or our ethnicity. Culture is referred to the total of human experiences for social context that is mediated by biological, psychological, historical, and political event. This included the individual’s behaviors, attitude, feelings, and cognition related with this individual identity living within the world (Hays & Erford, 2014).

  8. Anonymous March 26, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    This is just wonderful! I appreciate the time and detail taken to shed some light on the language barrier stereotype.

  9. Nancy April 8, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    I will be using your insightful blog in training future SCs. I keep going back to your statement, “What makes us different actually makes us similar, and, if we want to create a deeper understanding of diversity as providers, we need to start with a deeper understanding of ourselves.” Your article provides a good reminder for all of us to stop and think first of our similiarities when we begin our work with families and then move to recognizing, honoring, and celebrating our uniqueness as we go through the journey together.

  10. Sulma Caseres-Aracena May 14, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

    Andrea well said. Some of us take for granted the fact that we can easily navigate through life since we are very lucky to speak more than one language but for a family that has to quickly adapt to so many changes, it’s a scary process…thank you for reminding us to keep these points in mind when working with families in our community.

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