MCCULLOUGH: English more important in health profession

Nate McCullough

Nate McCullough

I don't make a habit of responding to other columns in this paper, but I would like to add something to one that appeared Thursday by Esther Cepeda.

The headline was "Hang-ups with official languages," and concerned her belief that English will continue to grow as a common tongue and will "neither prevent nor degrade multilingualism." I tend to agree with that.

For me, the question of what language should be spoken where is a pretty simple one to answer. If I moved to France, I would expect to have to learn French, but I would be most grateful to anyone who accommodated me in English while I learned French. I also wouldn't want anyone telling me I had to renounce English. As a part of free expression, I would expect to be able to speak whatever language I wanted most of the time (at home, for example), with the understanding that in certain instances I'd be expected to use French (say, in reading road signs). That's what I would expect to do if I moved there, and it's what I expect people to do who move here.

It's a compromise. As Cepeda contends, making it English-first instead of English-only would be a lot a more logical and feel like less of an assault on someone's heritage.

Where I draw a distinction is with the importance of what's being communicated. In some instances it becomes imperative that people not just learn to get by in English but to master it.

I have spent more time than I care to remember in the past couple of years in numerous hospitals, both as a patient and as a visitor with family members. One of the things I've noticed in that time is the growing number of health care professionals who are here from other countries. All have been capable, dedicated people who do an often thankless job, and their country of origin matters not one bit.

But the language barrier some bring with them does.

When you are trying to communicate with a nurse, doctor or technician, it's not just about how much they know about medicine. It's how much they understand you and vice-versa, which means it's also about how much English they know and how well they speak it.

Someone emailed me last week to ask what I thought about offering opinions based on anecdotes instead of reporting and research. That person has a good point because we see lots of stories that get blown out of proportion thanks to just that: Two or three shark attacks in a short period of time a few years ago and suddenly it was The Year of the Shark, when in fact, there were fewer attacks than the previous year. But sometimes it doesn't really matter whether evidence is anecdotal or statistical. When health care professionals have to be asked numerous times to repeat themselves because their English is so poor that you can't understand what they're telling you, that's a problem. And it certainly doesn't make me confident that they're understanding me.

And in the unlikely event that it's just my family and I, that only we managed to find the only doctors and nurses in all of America whose English is poor, well, then on behalf of my family, we'd like to ask that they do better just for us, seeing as how our lives can depend on it and all.

I believe in the melting pot, as long as everyone follows the law and the rules, which are sometimes not the same thing. We don't need a national law that requires every soul to speak perfect English. For most people who immigrate here, learning enough English to get by is probably just fine.

Most medical schools and nursing programs, however, do have rules about English proficiency, but they vary. Some are very demanding while others use words like "minimum requirement." That minimum requirement ought to be a high bar, and it ought to be consistent across the board. Otherwise, efforts as noble and important as healing the sick and saving lives are hindered when health care workers and their patients can't communicate effectively.

Email Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.