Culture and Language

The ideas people have about health, the languages they use, the health literacy skills they have, and the contexts in which they communicate about health reflect their cultures. Your organization can become more health literate and increase its communication effectiveness when your staff recognizes and bridges cultural differences that may contribute to miscommunication.

Cross-Cultural Communication

Culture can be defined by group membership, such as racial, ethnic, linguistic or geographical groups, or as a collection of beliefs, values, customs, ways of thinking, communicating, and behaving specific to a group.

Public health workers and health care providers belong to professional cultures with their own language—such as medical and epidemiological terms. These terms are not familiar to the public and hinder the public’s understanding of written and spoken health messages. Understanding can be further hindered when other cultural differences exist.

The National Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) Standardsexternal icon can help your organization overcome these cultural and linguistic differences. The National CLAS Standards are a set of 15 action steps intended to advance health equity, improve quality, and help eliminate health care disparities by providing a blueprint for individuals and health and health care organizations to implement culturally and linguistically appropriate services.

Your organization can use CDC’s Health Equity Guiding Principles for Inclusive Communication to find preferred terms for select population groups.

Review the Find Training section of this website for courses in culture and communication.

Translation and Interpretation

Group of four people in a meeting.

Effective communication recognizes and bridges cultural differences.

Translated materials and interpreter services can help bridge language differences, but translations and interpreter services may not be fully accurate or complete. Not all languages have words for something that exists in other languages and cultures, and not all words and ideas can be easily translated into or explained in another language.

Or, people may have weak literacy and numeracy skills in their native language, and translated materials may be too complex or technical for them.

The context for communication, such as the physical location or people’s shared or different experiences, may also affect the meaning of translated and interpreted words. The intended meaning may be lost, causing confusion even when everyone involved in the communication exchange believes they understand what is said.

To minimize this confusion, match certified translators and interpreters with the primary audience. A good match happens when the translator or interpreter uses information about the language preferences, communication expectations, and health literacy skills of the audience. The American Translators Associationexternal icon has information on finding and becoming a certified translator.

Language Access

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at least 350 languagesexternal icon are spoken in U.S. homes. Federal agencies, and potentially organizations that receive federal funds, must create and follow plans to meet the needs of people with limited English proficiencyexternal icon (LEP).

Before creating web content for people with LEP, watch Designing for Translation. In this 2021 webinar, hosted by’s Multilingual Community of Practice, speakers discuss the following topics:

  • What is designing for translation?
  • Language choice
  • Plain language
  • Layout and imagery

In Practical Tips for Accessible Content and Multilingual Websitesexternal icon, another webinar hosted by’s Multilingual Community of Practice, two digital accessibility experts discuss accessibility considerations for creating and working with multilingual platforms and content. Fast forward to the 33:36 mark on the video progress bar.

Your organization can use the Guide to Providing Effective Communication and Language Assistance Servicesexternal icon to enhance effective communication between those who provide and receive care in a health care facility.

Resources for Translated Materials


Page last reviewed: August 31, 2021