There is a thing that really annoys me. It's when I turn up to a house and people who have lived here for some years who can't speak English.
In London there are enclaves of various cultures, In North London you have a large Jewish enclave, you also have gatherings of Greek and Turkish people. In my own particular area you have places that seem 90% Bengali, there is a smaller area that is Sri Lankan in make-up.
Now this is fine, people like people who look and act like themselves. This is natural.
But, when a large enough group of people get together there becomes less incentive to learn English. The government provides translation for hundreds of languages, the people get their groceries in shops run by people who speak their own language and they go to community centres and religious institutions where their language is spoken. They can go for months, if not years, without having to speak to anyone who doesn't understand them.
Until they call an ambulance, then we either use 'Language line', which is expensive, or we turn to our 'arm-waving, shouting slowly' skills of communication. Or I use the one word of Bangladeshi that I know.
(It means 'pain'. I am better at getting the general gist of what people are saying to me).
Some days I will go the whole shift without seeing any patients or relatives who can speak English.
But it's not the difficulty in communication that it makes me annoyed. What annoys me is that people who don't speak English are cutting themselves off from wider society. Most of our education about society these days comes, for better or worse, from television and newspapers. By not being able to understand English you are cutting the amount of information that you are getting by a huge amount.
This isn't to say that non-English speakers are uninterested in news – there are lots of foreign language TV channels out there, and while the news might be news about the UK (I have no idea), it is being presented through a different lens than 'native' newscasts. This then colours people's perceptions of what is happening out there.
This is why learning English is something that I consider an important part of living in this country. While it pains me to agree with a religious nut, Ruth Kelly thinks that this translation help should be cut as it only puts hurdles on integrating into the larger UK society. Look at the poor woman who was a victim of an 'honour killing' a spokesperson says that the community tried it's best to protect the murderers – without wanting to seem trite, would these people be so quick to defend this murder if they saw how unacceptable this was from 'Eastenders'* or similar dramas?
Enculturalisation via TV.
This insular nature of various cultures is a bad thing, and is only reinforced by not being able to speak English.
Look at my last post – the poor woman firstly thought that the treatment that she was getting from her husband was 'normal', secondly she thought that both the police and the ambulance staff would physically beat her up. This could all be corrected if she could understand some English TV.
Show me someone who watches 'Casualty' and thinks that Josh beats people up for 'honour'.
I think that withholding the learning of English it is sometimes a way of maintaining power over women. Often I will go to a call and it will be the men who can speak English, and the women who can't. Likewise I find women who have been 'shipped over' to marry men in the UK. These women seldom speak any English and I often fear that this is in order to keep them 'under control'.
Also how can you take part in the larger scheme of the UK if you don't understand the political issues? How do you know who you are voting for – we seem so intent to bring democracy to other countries yet we forget these large parts of our own country. Of course, language isn't the only barrier to this given decreasing voter turnouts.
In my job it also places that extra barrier between the patient and myself, I always trust that the questions and answers that are being translated back and forth are being done so accurately.
My dad is/was** illiterate and I saw how that barred him from large parts of society, so I can imagine how being unable to speak the language must feel. I know that I feel terribly isolated from the world when I'm on holiday in a place where English isn't spoken and while I try to learn enough to get by, understanding news reports (for instance) is far beyond me.
And of course, we shouldn't forget the Welsh who are being told that in business they should only speak the official language of the UK. Interesting that part of the reason is that it excludes those of us who are unfortunate enough to be monolingual.
As always, these thoughts are my own, based on my own experiences as a WASPish male; I love reading comments that educate me, so please do argue with me on this if you think that I am wide of the mark. I have only the vaguest idea what it is to be a person from a Bangladeshi background – so please educate me.
*I know people do bad things to each other in Eastenders, but they always get punished for it. For example, it's some sort of a rule that no-one in Eastenders can take drugs without having a 'bad trip', dying or going to prison.
**Is/was because I have no idea if he is still alive.