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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Learn The Language, Please

Ready for a politically incorrect rant?  Good.

I am an American and therefore English is my native language.  I did learn German in high school and used to be passably fluent, but over 20 years of disuse has made me very rusty in that language.  My lack of multilingualism isn't a hardship to me because I live in an English-speaking country.  But what would happen if I moved to Russia?  Or to Japan?  Or France?  I would have major problems communicating and even getting by in day-to-day life.  With no skill in the languages of those countries I would have to rely on people being able to speak to me in my own language, or use an interpreter.  For a short visit the latter choice might be best, but not if I was living there long-term.  I would need to learn the language in order just to get by.

But what if I didn't?  What if I didn't bother learning Japanese while I was living in Tokyo?  My life would be really difficult and mere existence would be a major challenge.  Let's not even get into the situation of a medical emergency for me or my pets.  How can I talk about or understand a medical situation if I don't have even a basic competency with the language?

Astute readers will see where I'm going with this situation.  Here in the US we have many immigrants who don't have even the most simple skill in English.  And I'm not speaking of any particular ethnic group because I've seen this problem across nationalities.  As a vet this makes it very difficult to communicate with clients, especially if I have to tell them about a medical problem or make a recommendation for preventive care.  What ends up happening is the client doesn't understand what I'm saying and so doesn't do what I'm suggesting.  The pet may suffer or be at risk for disease because of this language barrier.

Yes, we try to accommodate some of these clients by keeping a selection of educational handouts in Spanish.  However, that's still not enough for full communication and doesn't include any other language groups. Early in my career I had to recommend neutering a dog to a client through the translation of her nine or ten year-old daughter, which was incredibly awkward.  Just this week my associate had to handle a client who didn't seem to understand much of anything she said, yet she was trying to go over even the basics of vaccines and heartworm disease.  It is a highly significant barrier to proper pet care and is frustrating to us.

In our society it seems like the onus of responsibility in communication is on us, the business.  It is somehow our fault that we don't speak the client's native language, even though they came to our country.  And we have to go out of our way to provide clients with information in a language that they understand or we're not doing enough to serve them.  I believe that this is backwards thinking.  THEY came HERE.  The responsibility should be on THEM to learn OUR language.

Now before anyone starts to blast me for being anti-immigrant or somehow racist, keep in mind several things.  First, I'm not talking about any specific group here, and have seen this issue with Hispanics, Asians, and Europeans.  Second, I'm very pro-immigrant, as long as they are following the laws in coming to the country (I won't get off on that tangent right now).  In fact, I am the son of an immigrant!  My father is originally from Sweden and is a naturalized US citizen.  I am very proud of my Swedish heritage and being the child of someone from another country makes me more interested in learning about other people's homeland.  But my father and I agree on this point.  If you're going to move to and live in a country, it is your responsibility to learn that language.  In fact, I personally believe that a working fluency should be a requirement for any kind of long-term visa or green card.  I don't exclude myself from this situation.  If I decided to live in another country, I would certainly expect to learn that language, starting before I ever moved.  I need to have responsibility for myself and my own survival, not expecting someone over there to accommodate me.

I welcome people from other countries, and have had many great ones as clients and employees.  But please learn how to speak and understand our language.


  1. 100% agree, wish there was a like button. I am not anti-immigration, but don't come to the US and expect us to learn your language to accommodate you. Other health care fields are giving in to having interpreters on staff. I can see the reasoning, but think it is outrageous anyone would move here and not at least attempt to begin learning the language.

  2. Human health care is a little different because some people who come to US hospitals come for special treatment not available in their own country or are tourists who fell ill here, I know that to be the case sometimes where I work. There is also a large refugee population in my city, and these people are trying to learn the language, but when your an adult it doesn't happen overnight. Plus some hospitals have the policy that the doctor must only speak English and have the interpreter be the one to translate so the patient can't sue the hospital for the doctor misinterpreting what s/he meant to say. Yes, I would understand frustration if immigrants refuse to learn the language, but that's not always the case and I think we could try to make some accomodations to meet somewhere in the middle, particularly in health care, which is a basic human right.

  3. Well said. Often expressed here in the Midwest!

  4. I agree that for many hospitals in big cities interpreters are necessary. However, there are many cases where routine health care (dentistry, optometry, etc) are seeing patients who have been in the country for years, and then get mad when you don't speak their language. I understand completely those patients who come here for specialty treatment, and applaud them for looking for the best treatment options, more than I can say for most of my patients. However, I am not in an emergency setting, or a setting where people travel to the US just for treatment, and still see people getting mad at me, or me being forced as Dr. Bern mentioned to translate via a young child (very unreliable). I still do my best, and obviously am more than happy to accommodate people in the process of learning or the occasional foreign visitor who needs to be seen. But please don't get mad at me or expect me to learn another language when you are the one who choose to move to the US permanently and are seeking routine care

  5. In new mexico we have to print everything bi-lingual and it is ridiculous. I totally agree with you. Why should we accomidate those who choose to live here. They should learn our language instead of expecting us to change our daily lives to compensate for their laziness or lack of care in general. No one forced you to live here, we shouldnt be forced to speak anything but english. Most people here speak such poor english that the ones who do cant even understand the people they're ordering burgers from! Its insane

  6. You are judging that every person from a foreign country has been here for enough time to learn the language proficiently. You have not taken into consideration that in some cultures women aren't allowed to be as learned as men. How I'd an intelligent man like yourself not think to use google translation? You type what you want to say and it translates into their language for them to read. Excuse yourself from the room while you write out the instructions and translate them. It's certainly not the dog's or cat's fault that their owner loves them and knows they are sick, and brings them to you for help. Take that extra 5 or 6 minutes to translate it so their loved and cherished pet lives. That or write a note on your door, I only will see English speaking clients.


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