Medicine and Society
Apr 2022

Recognizing and Dismantling Raciolinguistic Hierarchies in Latinx Health

Pilar Ortega, MD, Glenn Martínez, PhD, MPH, Marco A. Alemán, MD, Alejandra Zapién-Hidalgo, MD, MPH, and Tiffany M. Shin, MD
AMA J Ethics. 2022;24(4):E296-304. doi: 10.1001/amajethics.2022.296.



Latinx individuals represent a linguistically and racially diverse, growing US patient population. Raciolinguistics considers intersections of language and race, prioritizes lived experiences of non-English speakers, and can help clinicians more deftly conceptualize heterogeneity and complexity in Latinx health experiences. This article discusses how raciolinguistic hierarchies (ie, practices of attaching social value to some languages but not others) can undermine the quality of Latinx patients’ health experiences. This article also offers language-appropriate clinical and educational strategies for promoting health equity.


Hispanic/Latinx (hereafter, Latinx) individuals in the United States represent a culturally, racially, and linguistically diverse and rapidly growing population. Attempting to categorize all Latinx individuals in a single homogeneous group may result in inappropriate stereotyping,1 inaccurate counting,2,3 ineffective health interventions that insufficiently target at-risk subgroups,4 and suboptimal health communication.5 A more helpful approach is to use raciolinguistics to conceptualize the heterogeneous, complex Latinx experience as it relates to health. Raciolinguistics is the study of the historical and contemporary co-naturalization of race and language and their intertwining in the identities of individuals and communities. As an emerging field that grapples with the intersectionality of language and race, raciolinguistics provides a unique perspective on the lived experiences of people who speak non-English languages and people of color.6 As such, understanding raciolinguistics is relevant to providing language-concordant care7 to patients with limited English proficiency (LEP), who have been historically marginalized by structural barriers, racism, and other forms of discrimination in health care.

In this manuscript, we explore how raciolinguistics can help clinicians to appropriately conceptualize the heterogeneous, complex Latinx experience as it relates to health care. We then use the raciolinguistic perspective to inform strategies to dismantle structural barriers to health equity for Latinx patients pertaining to (1) Latinx patients’ health care experiences and (2) medical education.

Raciolinguistic Latinx Experiences

Sociological understandings of “race” presume that race is a social construction in which biological and other features serve as indices of societal values and generate enduring racial logics (ie, the use of race to define an individual or community’s social structure or status).8,9 While not a race in the phenotypic sense, Latinx people have been racialized in the United States following a pattern similar to that of other minoritized groups.10,11 Like race, “ethnicity” is a socially constructed category; depending on the context, the term ethnicity may refer to an individual’s culture, heritage, ancestry, or national origin.12 Although governmental classifications, such as in the US census, refer to “Hispanic or Latino” as an ethnicity,13 persons who identify (or are labeled) as Latinx may be of multiple races, nationalities, ethnicities, or cultural or linguistic backgrounds.

Language is a salient feature of the racial formation of Latinx and other groups. Early research on linguistic profiling demonstrated that racial discrimination is often predicated on the sound of one’s voice and the images that those sounds conjure in the imagination of an interlocutor.14 This research suggested that particular linguistic forms are linked to particular racialized phenotypic characteristics, which, in turn, index societal values and perceptions. Recent research on the relationship between language and race, however, moves beyond this early theorizing and argues not that language indexes race but rather that language and race have become co-naturalized.7 In this way, saying that someone “sounds Mexican” is not an objective appraisal of speech but rather a subjective “racing” of that person. In other words, to say that someone “sounds Mexican” is to place that person in the category Mexican and, at the same time, to foreground the societal values and perceptions of “Mexican” people.

A raciolinguistic perspective opens new understandings of the social meanings attached to languages and varieties of language in the United States and beyond.6 It has long been established that no single language or variety of a language is superior to or more complex than any other but, instead, that all languages and varieties serve their users equally well to express themselves, and all constitute rule-governed systems.15,16 Even so, not all languages and varieties enjoy the same social prestige.17 The values attached to speakers of a language often overlap with the very same values attached to them as part of a racialized group,18 resulting in intersecting social perceptions of race and language “experienced in powerfully embodied and perceivable ways.”19

Central to the formation and maintenance of raciolinguistic hierarchies is the concept of the listening subject.7 Raciolinguistic hierarchies are maintained not so much because speakers choose to speak in one way or another but rather because listeners choose to listen in particular ways. Let us consider again our initial example: “you sound Mexican.” While this may ostensibly be an observation about how someone else speaks, it is actually more revealing of the way the person who says it hears. “You sound Mexican” is always equal to “you sound Mexican to me.” Understanding raciolinguistic hierarchies in health care allows for recognition and a deeper understanding of structural barriers to Latinx health equity.

Improving Latinx Health Experiences

Raciolinguistic hierarchies have been documented in the health care experiences of US Latinx and limited English proficiency (LEP) populations.20,21,22,23 For example, a study of 20 Latinx immigrant women in 2 community health centers in Utah found that patients reported often being the target of discrimination because of the way they looked or spoke.22 One participant commented: “I was often made to wait for hours, just sitting there, while other white people were tended to first.”22 Another study of the health care experiences of Latinx mothers in Detroit and Baltimore found that the perception of discrimination was heightened by the “battle” to manage language barriers.23 The cumulative exposure to discrimination across generations may result in long-lasting negative health consequences for the US-born children of Latinx immigrants.24

Values attached to speakers of a language often overlap with values attached to them as part of a racialized group.

Conversely, increasing the number of linguistically and culturally concordant physicians might attenuate perceptions of discrimination and “othering” in health care. Patients with LEP and type 2 diabetes are less likely to perceive discrimination when treated by a language-concordant clinician.25 Similarly, Latinx patients treated by a Latinx mental health professional reported improved communication and a stronger working alliance.26 Strategies to dismantle raciolinguistic hierarchies in health care also should include thoughtful attention to posting multilingual signage, hiring patient navigators, providing multilingual patient information, ensuring language-appropriate access to scheduling and digital health platforms (eg, telemedicine), engaging with Latinx populations through community health worker programs, and partnering with professional medical interpreters (see Table). Signage and written material should reflect the language of the target population rather than jargon that may not be easily understood.

Table. Manifestations of Raciolinguistic Concepts in Health Care and Proposed Solutions to Improve the Latinx Health Care Experience and Medical Education
Raciolinguistic Concept

Manifestation of Raciolinguistic Concept in Health Care

Example of Problem

Proposed Solution

Racial logics

Interaction and intersectionality of race, language, ethnicity, and national origin

Patients who are non-English speakers are perceived to be health illiterate.

An individual who self-identifies as Latinx is assumed to be “White” based on their physical appearance upon hospital registration.

Critically review educational cases to ensure thoughtful representation of Latinx patients of varied nationalities, races, and educational level.

Engage with Latinx community organizations to better understand community language and health literacy needs and/or create joint programs (eg, with patient navigators, community health workers).

Ensure electronic health record systems have user-friendly fields to facilitate accurate language documentation.27

Raciolinguistic hierarchies


A medical student with a “Spanish-sounding” name is asked to interpret during a medical encounter with a Spanish-speaking patient.

Signage or forms are translated into Spanish but include medical jargon and language structures that are not well understood by the target population.

Establish clear health system policies regarding professional interpreter use.28

Make professional interpreters accessible and train staff to work with them.28

Review written materials and educational resources in non-English languages for readability level and engage community members and organizations for feedback on comprehension.

Listening subjects

Implicit bias

A patient is assumed to have certain cultural health beliefs based on their ancestry, race, or language and is not offered a specific health service (eg, oral contraceptives, vaccination, colonoscopy) because it is assumed the patient will refuse.

Some varieties of Spanish are judged to be better or more valid than others.

Train staff to consistently and respectfully ask patients about language preference (eg, “What language do you prefer we use for today’s visit?” or “In what language would you be most comfortable for this visit?”)2

Develop clinical cases that reflect authentic Latinx experiences and varied cultural beliefs and practices rather than stereotypes.

Involve Spanish speakers who reflect multiple varieties of Spanish in courses as teaching assistants, guest speakers, or pre-recorded audios or videos.

Latinx patients may preferentially speak a variety of languages. Recent data show that 38% of US Latinx individuals mainly speak Spanish and 36% use both Spanish and English (at variable skill levels), whereas 25% mainly use English.29 Yet Spanish speakers compose 64% of US individuals with LEP,30 and one-third of US Latinx individuals ages 5 and older report difficulty communicating in English.31 Other language preferences of US Latinx subgroups that are not as well studied include Portuguese, Indigenous languages (eg, Mayan, Quechua), or a combination of languages (eg, Spanglish). Despite diverse language needs, Latinx individuals may feel pressured to select “English-speaking” on medical forms due to discrimination fears, or they may be labeled as English-speaking if they are accompanied by an English-speaking family member. Such incorrect labeling may result in underrecognizing the need for onsite professional medical interpreters—an evidence-based intervention that significantly improves communication, patient outcomes, patient satisfaction, and health care utilization.32 To dismantle raciolinguistic hierarchies in Latinx patient care, health care centers must ensure that staff are trained in clear policies and procedures regarding accurate, consistent, and respectful collection of demographic information, including language preference,2,27 and that patients and staff can easily access professional language services28 (see Table).

Improving Education by Applying Raciolinguistics

Strategies to teach patient-centered communication skills with ethnic, racial, and linguistically diverse groups, such as unconscious bias training and medical Spanish courses, are in increased demand in medical education.33,34 However, curricular materials may unintentionally reinforce raciolinguistic hierarchies, stereotypes, and implicit bias by predisposing learners to view Spanish speakers through the lens of myriad social problems, such as alcoholism, teen pregnancy, poverty, health illiteracy, and incarceration.35 For example, while it would be useful for some medical Spanish role plays to illustrate Latinx patients with low health literacy, it would be more valuable to teach how clinicians should respectfully evaluate the educational level of Spanish speakers and adjust their communication register accordingly. Similarly, while some Latinx patients may express cultural reasons for refusing a medical recommendation, it would be inappropriate and inaccurate for all or most simulated encounters to reflect Spanish-speaking patients refusing care; this stereotype could perpetuate incorrect attribution of a cultural belief and deter clinicians from offering indicated services that they believe will be refused. Some data show that non-English speakers are less likely to receive a recommendation from their physician for potentially lifesaving health services, such as colorectal cancer screening.36 Medical education should broaden and enrich learners’ understanding of the heterogenous, diverse Spanish-speaking population rather than restrict language skills application to basic patterns that are often inaccurate.

Additionally, clinical communication skills training focusing on the needs of minoritized groups, such as non-English speakers, is often limited to students who specifically seek electives related to improving language or cultural skills (eg, medical Spanish courses or study abroad clerkships).37 However, given trends in US demographic data, all clinicians, regardless of their preexisting language or cultural skills, should be equipped to care for linguistically diverse populations.38

Among potential strategies for remedying racial inequities, Fair and Johnson recommend rigorously analyzing the use of race in clinical tools and practices, medical education, and research and centering communities’ voices in health interventions.39 Naming racism39 and “intersecting forms of oppression,”40 such as discrimination against patients who prefer non-English languages, is critical to making the needed educational and health care systems changes to ensure quality care for Latinx individuals. Analyzing medical education through a Latinx lens requires addressing the intersectionality of race and language and ensuring that it is appropriately reflected in educational materials (see Table). For example, schools should review their curricula, particularly in clinical skills, patient cases, and content about social determinants of health or health inequities to identify where and how the Latinx community is represented.

Next, educators should examine how teaching materials portray Latinx patients and make adjustments as needed. For example, materials should not portray immigrants negatively and all non-English speakers as having low health literacy. Educators should consider modifying materials and rosters of standardized patients to reflect raciolinguistic diversity. For instance, in the cardiac block, a clinical scenario could be added in which a student’s task is to interview a patient with LEP who presents with chest pain. Diverse actors, when empowered, can provide a valuable community perspective that ensures that language varieties, cultural beliefs and practices, and other elements of a case are authentic rather than stereotyped.41 Following such simulated encounters, guided reflection regarding their attitudes, performance, and feelings can help students better understand the complex relationship between race, ethnicity, and language as well as how their assumptions or lived experiences inform their medical interactions or decision making.

Medical school curricula should account for the skills and needs of diverse learners—for example, Latinx students with Spanish language skills or cultural knowledge or experiences.42 Institutional policies should address bilingual students’ and clinicians’ appropriate use of language skills, including clearly outlining qualifications and appropriate assessment methods and distinguishing the skills and roles of learners from those of medical interpreters.37 These policies should protect untrained bilingual or bicultural students and staff from inappropriate requests to serve as ad hoc interpreters, a common workplace microaggression, thereby improving patient safety and quality of care for patients who speak non-English languages.


A raciolinguistic perspective can inform how health care practices and medical education should be critically examined to support Latinx populations comprising heterogeneous communities and complex individuals with varying and intersecting cultural, social, linguistic, racial, ancestral, spiritual, and other characteristics. Future studies should explore the outcomes of raciolinguistic reforms of health services and educational interventions across the health professions to ensure effectiveness in improving health care for Latinx patients.


  1. Magaña López M, Bevans M, Wehrlen L, Yang L, Wallen GR. Discrepancies in race and ethnicity documentation: a potential barrier in identifying racial and ethnic disparities. J Racial Ethn Health Disparities. 2017;4(5):812-818.
  2. Azar KM, Moreno MR, Wong EC, Shin JJ, Soto C, Palaniappan LP. Accuracy of data entry of patient race/ethnicity/ancestry and preferred spoken language in an ambulatory care setting. Health Serv Res. 2012;47(1, pt 1):228-240.
  3. Amaro H, Zambrana RE. Criollo, mestizo, mulato, LatiNegro, indígena, white, or black? The US Hispanic/Latino population and multiple responses in the 2000 census. Am J Public Health. 2000;90(11):1724-1727.
  4. Arroyo-Johnson C, Mincey KD, Ackermann N, Milam L, Goodman MS, Colditz GA. Racial and ethnic heterogeneity in self-reported diabetes prevalence trends across Hispanic subgroups, National Health Interview Survey, 1997-2012. Prev Chronic Dis. 2016;13:E10.

  5. Ortega P. Spanish language concordance in US medical care: a multifaceted challenge and call to action. Acad Med. 2018;93(9):1276-1280.
  6. Alim H, Rickford J, Ball A. Raciolinguistics: How Language Shapes Ideas About Race. Oxford University Press; 2016.

  7. Rosa J. Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and the Learning of Latinidad. Oxford University Press; 2019.

  8. Gross A. What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. Harvard University Press; 2008.

  9. Omi M, Winant H. Racial Formation in the United States. 3rd ed. Routledge; 2015.

  10. Almaguer T. Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California. University of California Press; 1994.

  11. Molina N. How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts. University of California Press; 2014.

  12. Kaplan JB, Bennett T. Use of race and ethnicity in biomedical publication. JAMA. 2003;289(20):2709-2716.
  13. Race and ethnicity in the United States: 2010 census and 2020 census. US Census Bureau. August 12, 2021. Accessed November 5, 2021.

  14. Baugh J. Out of the Mouths of Slaves: African American Language and Educational Malpractice. University of Texas Press; 1999.

  15. Sapir E. Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. Harcourt, Brace; 1921.

  16. Labov W. Language in the Inner City: Studies in Black English Vernacular. University of Pennsylvania Press; 1972.

  17. Lippi-Green R. English With an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. Routledge; 1997.

  18. Anzaldúa G. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books; 1999.

  19. Rosa J, Flores N. Unsettling race and language: toward a raciolinguistic perspective. Lang Soc. 2017;46(5):621-647.
  20. Connors K. Barriers Latino patients face in the pediatric emergency department. Pediatr Nurs. 2019;45:37-41.

  21. Perez D, Sribney WM, Rodríguez MA. Perceived discrimination and self-reported quality of care among Latinos in the United States. J Gen Intern Med. 2009;24(suppl 3):548-554.
  22. Sanchez-Birkhead AC, Kennedy HP, Callister LC, Miyamoto TP. Navigating a new health culture: experiences of immigrant Hispanic women. J Immigr Minor Health. 2011;13(6):1168-1174.
  23. Steinberg EM, Valenzuela-Araujo D, Zickafoose JS, Kieffer E, DeCamp LR. The “battle” of managing language barriers in health care. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 2016;55(14):1318-1327.
  24. Viruell-Fuentes EA. Beyond acculturation: immigration, discrimination, and health research among Mexicans in the United States. Soc Sci Med. 2007;65(7):1524-1535.
  25. Schenker Y, Karter AJ, Schillinger D, et al. The impact of limited English proficiency and physician language concordance on reports of clinical interactions among patients with diabetes: the DISTANCE study. Patient Educ Couns. 2010;81(2):222-228.
  26. Alegría M, Roter DL, Valentine A, et al. Patient-clinician ethnic concordance and communication in mental health intake visits. Patient Educ Couns. 2013;93(2):188-196.
  27. Rajaram A, Thomas D, Sallam F, Verma AA, Rawal S. Accuracy of the preferred language field in the electronic health records of two Canadian hospitals. Appl Clin Inform. 2020;11(4):644-649.
  28. Ortega P, Shin TM. Language is not a barrier—it is an opportunity to improve health equity through education. Health Affairs Forefront. July 30, 2021. Accessed February 8, 2022.

  29. Krogstad JM, Gonzalez-Barrera A. A majority of English-speaking Hispanics in the US are bilingual. Pew Research Center. March 24, 2015. Accessed July 1, 2021.

  30. Zong J, Batalova J. The limited English proficient population in the United States in 2013. Migration Policy Institute. July 8, 2015. Accessed November 3, 2021.

  31. Krogstad JM, Stepler R, Lopez MH. English proficiency on the rise among Latinos. Pew Research Center. May 12, 2015. Accessed April 29, 2021.

  32. Karliner LS, Jacobs EA, Chen AH, Mutha S. Do professional interpreters improve clinical care for patients with limited English proficiency? A systematic review of the literature. Health Serv Res. 2007;42(2):727-754.
  33. Perdomo J, Tolliver D, Hsu H, et al. Health equity rounds: an interdisciplinary case conference to address implicit bias and structural racism for faculty and trainees. MedEdPORTAL. 2019;15:10858.

  34. Ortega P, Francone NO, Santos MP, et al. Medical Spanish in US medical schools: a national survey to examine existing programs. J Gen Intern Med. 2021;36(9):2724-2730.
  35. Martínez G. Spanish in Health Care: Policy, Practice and Pedagogy in Latino Health. Routledge; 2020.

  36. Johnson-Kozlow M, Roussos S, Rovniak L, Hovell M. Colorectal cancer test use among Californians of Mexican origin: influence of language barriers. Ethn Dis. 2009;19(3):315-322.
  37. Ortega P, Pérez N, Robles B, Turmelle Y, Acosta D. Strategies for teaching linguistic preparedness for physicians: medical Spanish and global linguistic competence in undergraduate medical education. Health Equity. 2019;3(1):312-318.
  38. Ortega P, Pérez N, Robles B, Turmelle Y, Acosta D. Teaching medical Spanish to improve population health: evidence for incorporating language education and assessment in US medical schools. Health Equity. 2019;3(1):557-566.
  39. Fair MA, Johnson SB. Addressing racial inequities in medicine. Science. 2021;372(6540):348-349.
  40. Boyd RW, Lindo EG, Weeks LD, McLemore MR. On racism: a new standard for publishing on racial health inequities. Health Affairs Forefront. July 2, 2020. Accessed February 8, 2022.

  41. Picketts L, Warren MD, Bohnert C. Diversity and inclusion in simulation: addressing ethical and psychological safety concerns when working with simulated participants. BMJ Simul Technol Enhanc Learn. 2021;7:590-599.

  42. Ortega P, Prada J. Words matter: translanguaging in medical communication skills training. Perspect Med Educ. 2020;9(4):251-255.


AMA J Ethics. 2022;24(4):E296-304.



Conflict of Interest Disclosure

Drs Ortega and Alemán report receiving royalties from Elsevier. The other authors had no conflicts of interest to disclose.

The viewpoints expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.