Freedom Folks

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Personal Take on the Importance of Language

If you've been here recently, you'll know that I had semi-emergency surgery on my hand a couple of days ago. Well, in addition to walking away from the surgical center with a tightly bandaged hand and a fair amount of pain, I walked away with a personal reminder of why our one national language is so important.

It's not that I needed convincing, mind you -- but my experience highlighted the conclusion I had previously reached: it is imperative that we not forget the importance of being able to communicate with each other.

As I reclined on a bed being prepared for surgery Monday morning, two medical staffers bustled around me, filling in my chart, asking me questions, starting an IV -- all the usual pre-surgery stuff. The problem was that I could barely understand them.

Let me note here that I have always been pretty good at understanding people, even with fairly heavy accents. I'm not a xenophobe who is "unable" -- or unwilling -- to make an extra effort to understand someone because they are speaking English as a second language. Au contraire, I've always enjoyed the fact that people wanted to come from all corners of the earth to seek opportunity and a better life in this country (like my dad).

But there I was, preparing to go under general anesthesia for surgery on my right hand -- the one I write with, and half of the pair I use to earn a living, play the piano, tie my shoes, cook, sew, eat, etc. -- and I was having to ask the people responsible for making sure everything was as it was supposed to be to repeat themselves 2 and 3 times so I could understand them. You are probably familiar with the usual patter of explanation as they get you ready...explaining what they're doing and why. I got none of that. I was stuck and taped with an IV, blood was drawn, and things were injected into my IV flow WITH NO EXPLANATION WHATSOEVER.

Was that a cultural omission, I asked myself, or was it due to a language barrier? The answer is that I DON'T CARE. It doesn't matter one whit to me...I just really, really, really want to be able to communicate effectively with the people to whom I am entrusting my care.

One of the staffers called me just a little while ago to follow up on the surgery. I could barely understand her in person -- on the phone was even worse. I tried to ask her a couple of simple questions about caring for the increased swelling I've been experiencing since last night. She fumbled over an answer until I offered that I'd put some ice on it, then she latched onto that for dear life. I tried to ask if I could safely take some ibuprofen along with the pain meds that were prescribed. All I got were repetitions of the ice mantra. Then I made out something about calling my doctor's office. Why should I have to call my doctor's office when I was talking to the place that did the surgery?

What really ticks me off is that we are hearing increasing reports of jobs like these becoming harder and harder to get for people who aren't bilingual. Can't we just focus on the ONE language that has been historically, traditionally, and effectively our official language in the U.S., if not "officially" our official language?

I sure would have been happy with some nice, clear, understandable English when my hand went under the knife on Monday.

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