The Danger of False Cognates & How to Avoid Them

By David Fetterolf, Stratus Video President

False cognates are when two words sound almost identical and are spelled almost the same in two different languages but have completely different meanings. Stratus Video Language Operations Manager, Betlem Nogue-Bonet defines false cognates as the medical interpreter’s enemy number one, as they can negatively impact patient-provider communication and even patient care.

Nogue-Bonet recently presented an educational webinar on the appeal of ad hoc interpreters, and why they are problematic to rely on in a medical setting. The webinar, titled “Ad Hoc Interpreters: A Risk in the Clinical Setting” includes Nogue-Bonet’s personal encounters with the faulty work of ad hoc interpreters, much of which involved the use of false cognates.

Examples of False Cognates in Healthcare

Here are just a few examples of false cognates in English and Spanish that commonly appear in healthcare.

Constipado vs. Constipated

“Estoy constipado” in Spanish means “I have a cold”. Its false cognate in English, “I am constipated”, has a completely different meaning. This is an example of a false cognate that often appears in healthcare and, when wrongly used, can negatively impact diagnoses, patient care and outcome.

Molestar vs. Molest

Another common example of a false cognate that comes up in medical interpretation is “molestar” versus “molest”. In Spanish, “molestar” means to bother or annoy. In English, the word “molest” means to assault or abuse someone sexually. The use of this false cognate would undoubtedly alter the meaning of any conversation and need to be clarified immediately to ensure effective communication is taking place.

Intoxicado vs. Intoxicated

False cognates in medical interpretation can be particularly dangerous, as a simple misunderstanding can result in grave circumstances, even adverse effects for patients. This was the case with an eighteen-year-old patient who was rushed into the hospital by his family in a comatose state. The family told healthcare staff in Spanish that the young man was “intoxicado”, meaning that he had ingested something that made him ill. Without consulting with a medically qualified interpreter, the healthcare staff took “intoxicado” to mean that he was intoxicated, diagnosed him with an overdose and treated him accordingly. In reality, he was suffering from a brain hemorrhage that went untreated for more than two days. As a result of the untreated hemorrhage, the patient became quadriplegic. If a correct diagnosis would have been made, the patient could have left the hospital without any serious side effects. This is a case where the use of a false cognate led to a disastrous result.

How to Avoid the Use of False Cognates

False cognates represent one of the many reasons why qualified interpreters must be used every time a language barrier is present in healthcare. Qualified interpreters are trained to pick up on the confusion created by false cognates and clarify them immediately, as misunderstandings can quickly diminish the level of care provided. Bilingual staff members that have not been trained in medical interpretation are less likely to detect false cognates. There may also be an unconscious ulterior motive at work when bilingual staff members are used in place of interpreters. Instead of solely working to bridge a communication gap, bilingual staff members may interject their own recommendations into the conversation. When someone is diagnosing while they interpret, both the diagnosis and the communication suffers.

Ad hoc interpreters also lack training in the professional interpreter code of ethics. Ethic number five, impartiality, requires interpreters to refrain from counseling, advising or projecting any personal biases and beliefs. This includes refraining from accepting any assignments where the interpreter’s relationship, such as being a family member or a healthcare provider, may affect their ability to remain impartial. The code of ethics also requires medical interpreters to participate in continuing education to keep abreast of evolving language and medical terminology.  By utilizing qualified language services, hospitals can avoid the use of false cognates and other common pitfalls of the untrained interpreter.

Stratus Video offers complete medical language services that include over-the-phone, video remote, and onsite interpretation along with an easy-to-use translation service. Our interpreters are trained and ready to adapt to any situation they encounter, acting as a cultural bridge between patient and provider. Our interpreters are highly experienced, required to hold certificates when available, and go through extensive medical training. Learn more about how Stratus Video language services can help ensure meaningful understanding for patients and providers at your facility.

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