Consumer enablement guide

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Linguistic Diversity

One in three people in NSW speaks a language other than English at home and nearly one in 20 does not speak English well or at all.1

Over 300 different languages are spoken in Australia.1

The most common languages other than English spoken in NSW homes are:

  • Mandarin
  • Arabic
  • Cantonese
  • Vietnamese, and
  • Greek.1 2

An estimated 2500 people in NSW use Auslan (Australian Sign Language) as their primary language due to hearing loss.3 4

Healthcare interpreters

Even when a person from a non-English speaking background speaks good English they should be offered an interpreter, as they may feel more comfortable discussing complex or sensitive health information in their primary language.

All staff in NSW Health must comply with the Policy Directive: Interpreters – Standard Procedures for Working with Health Care Interpreters.5 If you work in NSW Health, you should make sure you are familiar with the requirements of this directive. Clinicians working outside NSW Health may also find the information in the policy directive useful.

NSW Health interpreting and translation services

Healthcare interpreters are available 24 hours a day in NSW. They provide services in over 120 languages, including Auslan, in person or over the phone. Videoconference interpreting is also available in some areas during business hours.

Find your local Health Care Interpreter Service

National interpreting and translation services

General practitioners and medical specialists delivering Medicare services should be registered with the National Translating and Interpreting Service.6 The service interprets in over 160 languages, in person and over the phone, and is available 24 hours a day. The service is also available to many other healthcare providers including private practice allied health, pharmacies, emergency services and non-government organisations.

Bilingual clinicians

If you are a bilingual clinician you may deliver services directly to people in their primary language. If you are sufficiently fluent, there is no unreasonable risk of miscommunication.

Family interpreters

NSW Health policy requires use of professional healthcare interpreters who are accredited or certified by National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters as an interpreter.7 Family members, friends or bilingual staff member in your practice or service should not act as an interpreter, except in emergencies as stipulated in the Policy Directive: Interpreters; Standard Procedures for Working with Health Care Interpreters.5

Using unaccredited interpreters introduces an unacceptable risk of miscommunication and breaches your duty of care. Unaccredited translators’ language skills and knowledge of medical terminology are untested, and interpreting by family and friends may be influenced by emotional involvement.

A professional healthcare interpreter:

  • has demonstrated fluency in both languages and is competent in using medical terminology
  • has specialised healthcare context knowledge including medical discourse characteristics and the interpreters role in facilitating communication and rapport building
  • meets intercultural competency requirements and can often assist you with relevant cultural knowledge that can enhance understanding and communication in addition to language interpreting
  • has met ethical competency requirements and is required to abide by a professional code of ethics8
  • is not influenced by emotional involvement with the person.

Translation services

People are more able to take an active role in managing their health when they have access to written information that they can understand.

Translation services are used for translating medical documents as well and providing health information in different languages.

Using professional translation services ensure that documents and resources that are appropriately expressed for the audience so they can easily be understood.

Translation services are available from the Multicultural Health Communication Service and some local health districts have in-house translation services.


  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2016 Census: New South Wales [media release 27 June 2017].
  2. NSW Government. Culture. Last updated 24 May 2018.
  3. Auslan Signbank. Macquarie University.
  4. Willoughby, L. The Distribution of New South Wales; Sign Language Users Analysis from the 2001, 2006 and 2011 Census. New South Wales Deaf Society; 2013. Available from: f.
  5. NSW Health.Policy Directive: Interpreters Standard Procedures for Working with Health Care Interpreters. PD2017_044. North Sydney: NSW Health; 2017.
  6. Commonwealth of Australia, Dept of Home Affairs. National Translating and Interpreting Service.Melbourne: Dept of Home Affairs.
  7. National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters
  8. Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators. AUSIT Code of Ethics. Melbourne AUSIT; 2012.