Th 239670

bridging the gap

Feb. 1, 2007
bilingual strategies for dental hygienists
Click here to enlarge image

bilingual strategies for dental hygienists

by Kimberly R. Miller, RDH, BSDH

With the fifth largest Hispanic population worldwide, it would be safe to say that practicing dental hygiene in the United States guarantees that at some point in your career you will be treating someone who doesn’t speak English. Wouldn’t it be great if you could speak enough Spanish to make your Hispanic patients comfortable during their dental visits?

The United States has the fifth largest (> 35 million) Hispanic population worldwide, making Spanish the second most widely spoken language after English. Of this group more than three out of four say that Spanish is their primary language. In the United States, the 28 million people who speak Spanish at home comprise more than half of the approximately 47 million people who speak a language other than English at home. This means Spanish is spoken by more people than all other non-English languages combined within the United States. As the Hispanic population continues to increase, the ability to speak both Spanish and English will continue to become more and more valuable.1,2

I think it would be safe to say that practicing dental hygiene in the United States guarantees that at some point in your career you will be treating someone who does not speak English. I can only imagine how difficult that would be if I were the patient. Submitting myself to treatment without the benefit of communication could be very intimidating, and in some cases even frightening. To help allay those fears and demonstrate our compassion for our Spanish-speaking patients, it would be wonderful if we could have at our disposal some key phrases to help our patients through a typical continuing-care appointment, including X-rays and an exam.

In this article you will find key words and phrases that you can easily make into index cards for ready reference chairside. To facilitate this process, let’s take a typical continuing-care visit step by step, isolating the most common questions and information and translate them as we go. Keep in mind that you may not use all of these phrases, but you may have occasion to refer to many of them. This information is not intended as something you would memorize but to keep on hand for reference when the need arises. Click here to view Office Bilingual Dialogue...

As you read through this dialogue and begin to get familiar with the language, here are a few pronunciation tips to keep in mind. The Spanish a is a short sharp sound like “hat,” the e is like the e in “wet,” the i is like the ee in “seen” only a bit shorter, the o can have two sounds - when it is at the end of a word, it is like in “note,” or when it is before a consonant, it is shorter like “pot” or “cot.” This difference is very subtle. The u is like the “oo” in “food” and it is silent after q and in “gue” and “gui.”

Consonants can be a little more difficult, but most Spanish-speaking people will appreciate that you are trying and will be able to decipher what you are saying even if you don’t pronounce it perfectly. In Spanish, b and v sound the same, so if you were saying “boda” in Spanish, it would sound like “voda.” The Spanish c can sound like “car” or take on the s sound; most of the time it sounds like “car” when it begins a word and like s when it is found in the middle of a word. The Spanish g can sound like “go” or sound like an h. The Spanish h is always silent unless it is paired with c in a ch, which sounds the same in Spanish as in English. The Spanish j make the same sound as the English h. In Spanish, the ll makes the same sound as y in English as in the word “yawn.” Another sound we don’t have in English is the ñ; this sounds like “n-yuh.” The Spanish q sounds like our English k, so it sounds like “kind.” There is also an rr in Spanish, called a “rolled r,” that has the same sound as our English r but with this Spanish letter you place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth and vibrate it as you make the sound. This can be challenging so don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time. S in Spanish can sound the same as our English s but it can also have a z sound. The rest of the Spanish consonants (d, f, k, l, m, n, p, r, t, x, z) are all the same as our English versions of these letters.

*Please note, in an effort to keep the following phrases as simple as possible for English speakers, they are not translated precisely. Rest assured that Spanish-speaking patients will understand what you mean; the author recognizes a native Spanish speaker might speak in a different way.

In light of our desire as dental professionals to provide excellent care, it falls on us to prepare ourselves for the opportunity to treat Spanish-speaking patients. Using the phrases provided, you can start to build your vocabulary. If you are interested in learning more professional or conversational Spanish, visit For specific pronunciations, try Another helpful Web site is where you can find a translator feature called Babel Fish Translation - just click on it. For those of you who prefer books, I recommend Spanish for Dental Professionals by Bender, Maier & Stern. It comes with a CD of conversations and dialogues of health-care professionals interacting with Spanish-speaking patients.

I hope these suggestions for expanding your Spanish verbal skills will prove to be useful to you and at the same time increase your patients’ comfort during their dental visits.


1 U.S. Census Bureau News Release, Oct. 8, 2003.
2 Wikipidia, Spanish Language.
3 Bender, Maier, Stern. Spanish for dental professionals.
4 Owners and staff of Guadalajara Restaurant, Redding, Calif.

Kimberly Miller, RDH, BSDH, is a senior consultant with the JP Institute. The JP Institute offers continuing-education training for the entire dental team. JP specializes in analyzing and refining practice philosophies, business systems, hands-on implementation of clinical skills, technology, and product integration. Call The JP Institute for information on its Mastership certification courses, Dental Spa product line, and In-office consulting services at (800) 946-4944 or visit