Speaking The Lingo

There are a lot of people in my area who don't speak English as their first language, actually, there are a lot of people who don't speak English at all.
The reasons why I don't like it when people can't speak English are because it disadvantages them both personally and in society.

Personally I like to be able to talk to the patient themselves, while we often use other members of the family as translators it is a poor substitute for talking to the patient, being able to interpret their tone of voice and body language.

Certain topics can be tricky to deal with via a translator, the recent spate of domestic violence cases I have been going to are much harder to deal with through a translator, I always have the fear that the patient is being misinterpreted either accidentally or on purpose.

Then there are conditions for which some translators are perhaps ill-suited. We often use small children as translators as they often have the best understanding of English. Using a small child to translate for their auntie who is having a miscarriage is always tricky.

A huge part of my job is to reassure people, it's a lot tougher to reassure someone if you can't speak their language.

Then there are the societal problems with people who don't speak English. I go to a lot of places that are quite insular. The people I meet buy all their goods from people who speak the same language as them, their friends all speak the same language and they only watch the television that comes in their language.

This leads to people not becoming a part of English culture. Now, you may call me imperialistic, but I think that English culture is pretty good – we have sex/race/cultural/diasability equality (with varying success), we frown on people beating their children/wives and I'd say that we are fairly open with respect to other people. When people come to live in this country I like to think that they would take on some of these properties, but this is much harder if they don't speak English as it means that they can remain insulated from 'English' culture.

To help with the translating we have 'language line' which is a telephone translation service. It enables us to use our mobile phone as a 'universal translator', which is very cool, but also very expensive. To be honest I'm yet to need to use it – I'm pretty good at understanding people based around body language, the few words of English that they can speak and the waving around of hands.

To be fair, for a lot of people it's not that they can't speak English, but it's more that they are not confident to speak it, I try to encourage them and to provide a space, in the back of my ambulance, where they can try talking English without fear of being ridiculed.

It keeps my working day interesting at least.

21 thoughts on “Speaking The Lingo”

  1. The problem with asking “where does it hurt” in a language you don't speak is that you're likely to get a long complicated answer that you cannot hope to understand – better surely for incoming people to learn the language? I don't understand being “dragged along with the rest of the family” – most relocations affect more than one person, and it's quite likely everyone will have a life or death need to speak the language of their local emergency services and medics at some point in their life.It's often seemed to me that one way to maintain the paternalistic status quo from “the old country” in this land of gender equality is to discourage womenfolk from learning the lingo, thus keeping them effectively caged in from interacting with anyone except their own families and community.

    I hate being in a country where I don't speak the language, it feels like I'm in isolation behind an invisible wall, and actively discourages me from being too outgoing. I cannot imagine how it must feel to actually live my entire in a country where I couldn't make a simple request for a cup of water on a hot day, or ask for help if I needed it, outside the home and my own community.

  2. What are the primary 'other' languages ? I sort of agree with you with regard to cultural adoption. Certainly for citizenship there should be (and probably IS) an oral English test. I know when I took my US Citizenship tests you are required to be able to write and read basic English.

  3. I agree with you Tom – completely and utterly. When I emigrated here I went on a compulsory Swedish For Immigrants course, which all people new to living here must do. I often think of how poeple would react in the UK if there was a compulsory “English For Immigrants” course – wouldn't the name alone be enough to stir ill-feeling?!That said, your point about some sections of your community only interacting (vocally or otherwise) with other non-English-speaking people isn't so surprising. England isn't exactly always the welcome-with-open-arms nation it sometimes likes to portray itself as, just as not every immigrant is willing to embrace English culture/society. You make some good points about how we generally treat others well……but even as an Englishman I found myself ostracised by stigma and/or snobbery, so for some 'outsiders' it cannot be easy, especially in light of relatively recent suspicions, fears, paranoia & propaganda (from ALL sides of that argument!!).It's a bloody good job though that there are still people out there in positions of authority and care who remember that visual body language still makes up at least 55% of the importance of communication.Not sure how I want to end this post other than to say 'integration' as I've written about before, is often a lot harder than just learning the language – I've found that out here (equivalent of 'A' Level now)….the hard way…but that's another story….

  4. VTEMT, you don't have to be a British citizen to live in the UK. As a member of the European Union, all European citizens have the right to live and work wherever they choose.That said, I don't know what people have to do to attain British citizenship… I'm not sure that you can just apply for it without a good reason.

    Additionally, people are also here as asylum seekers.

  5. Yes, people who elect to move to the UK should probably learn how to survive here. Those who had no choice, and got dragged along with the rest of the family, on the other hand… no. Because it's not their decision, and they're very unlikely to have a life-or-death need to speak it.The inverse is also true. If, through your own decisions, you're regularly being involved in life or death situations with speakers of a few minority languages, it seems rather important to be able to say the very basic things in that language: “where's the patient?”; “Where does it hurt?”; “keep still”; “you're cute – when does your shift end?”

    Learning just three phrases (“I don't speak [], could someone translate?”, “sorry” and “thanks”) will buy you more goodwill than you could cram into your average ambulance. “Where the heck did that blanket appear from?” is optional.

    Learning these essential phrases doesn't mean you need to take night classes – you could ask those people who do speak some English to help teach you a few handy phrases. Take their mind off the trip to the hospital, make them feel useful, and get you some handy info.

    Ask the convenient translator to phonetically write down any critical question they have to translate for you.

    Where there are two mixed-but-similar-looking groups who speak different languages so you can't tell, generally they will give you kudos for at least TRYING. Especially if you can laugh with them about it, and laugh more when you cock up pronouncing their own versions of the words as they teach them to you.

    People *love* teaching outsiders about their culture. So let 'em!

    [All the above opinionated crap was just written by someone who was never in your situation. But I *have* been in the situation of the translator-child, so I know what I'm talking about. Mothers feel *bloody proud* of their kids teaching the foreigners the lingo, and that pride helps them deal with their own helplessness a whole lot better.]

  6. The difference with BSL is that the language is the same (although the grammar and jargon is very different) and in most cases it's not too hard to communicate with someone who is deaf – worse comes to worse you can often write stuff down (one particular patient springs to mind here).I know thi is simplistic and these things seldom are.

  7. London being the most diverse city on the planet (at least as far as I can tell), there's no point saying, “Maybe it's worth trying to learn some of their language.” You're probably talking about fifteen or so languages.As for acculturation, surely you've heard of Mangelsdorf's Law? When two cultures meet, each will absorb the other's worst characteristics. (Erm, irony alert, okay?) So, let's see, the Brits will become sexist, tyrannical jerks, while the non-Brits will become … what? … bureaucrats who tell incomprehensible jokes? Hmm, even in that case, maybe the non-Brits would do well to go for a bit of acculturation? ??

  8. I have to say communication in this country is seen as (and im being stereotypical here) “if you can't speak english then pah!”I was on HDU a few nights ago and there was a lovely chap with a trachy and he couldn't get a sound out, but me and him were having a right laugh together just by me reading his facial expressions and lip reading him.

    The other staff on the ward were, well completely oblivious to the fact that he could still communicate let alone trying to make conversation with him.

    (One comment really p'd me off (and the pt) was when I joked, as we were about to roll him, that I was going to leave his ileostomy bag full cuz id got a bet for 10 that it would burst at 0400, he mouthed, put 20 on it for me for 0500, so I laughed and said I'll make a note of it. Through this little bit of banter the SN had her back turned as she was getting gloved up, and she turned around and said in a very firm manner “what are you going to make a note of, I have done nothing wrong?”…..)

    I think talking across communication barriers is more to do with the willingness of the communicator to try and get a message across, and the willingness of the receiver to try and interpret language in an alternative to words.

  9. And then there's this guy…British mum, American dad. Born in the USA, but just before his first birthday came back to the UK with his mum. Hasn't left the country since. Is now 58 years old.

    And has to take a Citizenship Test.

    Apparently to take the test, you get a book called Life In The UK, read it, and then sit a 45-minute written test.

    Here is some information about the sort of thing they're concerned with.

  10. We have “English As A Foreign Language” courses and immigrants and asylum seekers are encouraged to take them up. As I understand it there are some factories which will subsidise places on these courses for their foreign workers.

  11. If there were more culturally representative TV shows and films in English, people might watch them and pick stuff up faster.I heard something on the Today prog this morning about how a bus company are recruiting people from Poland, and have provided various DVDS to assist them with learning the various regional accents they might find in the UK. Apparently (it might have been tongue in cheek though) they've given them Only Fools and Horses to help them learn the London accent. Can't see that being much use!

  12. Have tried an interpreter by 'phone, it is weird. You say into the 'phone “Please tell her I would like to take her blood pressure”, then you pass the 'phone to the patient,etc,etcI remember me and a fellow practice nurse trying to communicate with a Romanian family in French ( sort of). “Have you got a family history of diabetes?” came out something like “Has your Granny got sugar in her wee?”

    Computer translating “out of sight, out of mind” = invisble imbecile

    A patient gave me a bit of paper with “well oiled beef hooked” on it . Try saying it with an Irish accent…..

    That's what's good about my job, you get to know people well and they can have a laugh if they want to

    Went on a school trip to France to stay with a French family. Problem was, I didn't speak French and they didn't speak English. The Mum managed to tell me how she cured her son of nail biting.She mimed cutting her fingernails and giving them to him on a plate.

    Whilst there I found out from a fellow pupil that , when asked if you would like some more food ,you should not say ,”Non, merci, je suis plein” for “No thanks, I'm full up “, as it means “No thanks I'm pregnant'. (We were about 14 at the time and it was the sixties when unmarried mums could be incarcerated in mental hospitals.) Nowadays the reply might be,”oh is that your first baby?” Oops, showing my age!

  13. Oh and false cognates are fun, too! I particularlly like the false cognate in Spanish for 'embarrassed.' The correct word is 'verguenza' (at least where I'm from) but people often mistakenly use 'embarazada' and end up saying 'I'm pregnant.'I agree that London is very diverse and there are many different languages spoken here. However, I still think that it would be helpful to learn a few words in the main languages spoken in your area.

    In my neighbourhood in Chicago, we had mostly Spanish and Polish speakers, so that was the most useful to us. It's amazing how a few words can go a long way. But I'm glad that you're such a sensitive guy, Tom/Brian, and that you realise that body language and pantomime are often just as useful (if not entertaining!).

  14. I used to be “British”; I didn't vote for devolution – in fact I voted against it. Despite my heritage, I believe we need less government, not more. Now you are “English” and I am “Scottish”. I preferred being “British”.(PS, my dad was Irish. He came from Dublin; he joined the RAF in 1938 and was lifted off the beach at Dunkirk in May 1940: in September 1944, at Arnhem, he was shot down and captured. In 1948/49, he spent a year keeping people alive via the Berlin Airlift . In 1954, some twit in Whitehall wrote to tell him (he served in the RAF until 1968) that he needed to fill a bunch of forms in to remain in the UK, or he would be deported).

    Sorry; bad night; fatal RTA (RTC?) (19 years old) just this side of our mutual border.

  15. And for goodness' sake, don't ask for a slice of “gateau” in a Spanish restaurant, or imagine that “Burro” means butter.When Jack Kennedy made his famous “Let them come to Berlin” speech in 1961, the crowd fell about laughing at his “Ich bin ein Berliner” line. It means something like “I am a currant bun”. To get the flavour – compare “Ich bin ein Hamburger” with “Ich bin Hamburger”

  16. I'm studying in France for a year – my French is pretty good and I can communicate well enough although sometimes I have to ask for specific words to be explained. I have had to go to the doctor a couple of times since I've been here, and it's been quite a daunting experience. One doctor made the effort to speak some English to me (actually I find it easier to speak to French people in French because I can understand their French more easily than I can understand their English but I really appreciated the effort she made.) I hope I don't end up in an emergency care situation though – because before I see the doctor I look up key words in the dictionary!Speaking to French people in general can be a bit scary though – just because I'm not that confident with my accent. So I can completely understand the temptation to remain insular within a community that speaks your language. I'm lucky because I have a lot of friends who don't speak English or who find French easier, and because I can have a fairly coherent conversation in French, but I can imagine if I was a complete novice I'd just hang out with all the other English people.

  17. Ah but is the course a pre-requisite for a) naturalised citizenship and b) employment or is it merely an incentive for both the immigree (is that even a word?!) and the employer?Someone else wrote up there that they only got 7 out of 14 on that test. I remember when that test came out on the BBC and I took it, getting 10 I think it was. Well, part of the reason why might be that neither the poster nor I had access to the book, in which will be the 'right' answers 😉

  18. I agree with what you say in this section and about the dangers of people being isolated from the rest of the local (and wider) community and it's good that you give people a chance to try out their English without being impatient with them or getting annoyed. The only thing I would say is that other cultures not only have a different verbal language, but their non-verbal communication is also different from ours – eg shouting or thumping the table or waving their arms about may not necessarily mean that the person is angry, and not looking you in the eye doesn't necessarily mean they're not listening or that they don't respect you, etc etc; and we must be careful not to judge their behaviour from our own cultural point of view. (I've always wondered if the first foreign footballers who came here got booked more often than their British team-mates because they were more liable to shout and wave their arms about! – Anybody done a PhD on that? – Or want to give me a grant to do one??!). By the way, I enjoyed your book and have purchased some as Chrimbo presents. I bought the 'PC David Copperfield' one as well, but ended up putting it in the bin (and I was actually genuinely surprised that a Police Officer was so right-wing!!). Normally I would never bin a book but would pass it to a charity shop or leave it on the train for someone else etc, but I really didn't want anyone else to read it!

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