The healing power of English

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My grandmother has recently returned from a stay in hospital. A few weeks back she decided to go for a walk in the garden and fractured a bone. It has mended now but this post is not about her bone, it’s about how disempowered she was when she was in hospital.

I stayed with her for much of the time to translate as she cannot speak any English and the medical staff could not speak Punjabi. My grandmother could not say where the pain was, choose what to have for lunch and could not ask for painkillers. The staff caring for her were brilliant, but they were frustrated as they wanted to help and do the best for her but had to rely on me to communicate.

A lack of English also meant that she was effectively bed blocking, costing the NHS even more money. She could have been discharged much earlier. Had she been able to speak just a few words, a nurse would have visited the house every few hours. But thanks to the language barrier, this was not an option.

My grandmother has lived in England for a while, but spent much of that time in Birmingham where there was no need for her to speak English as there was a large Punjabi community. She was independent and had an active social life. Her husband learnt some English and she relied on him to do paper work. My grandmother learning English was seen by the community as a waste of time, especially as she had no formal schooling in India and is unable to read or write. Old age means that she cannot live alone and now has to live with her children in the sleepy English countryside where very few people speak her language.

I cannot imagine relying on others to communicate for me in a medical situation. I would hate to have no say in what medicine I took or how I was looked after. No one likes a stay in hospital, but it must be even worse if you are unable to communicate with the world around you.

There must be many more women like my grandmother who have to rely on family members to translate when they need medical help. Thanks to the cuts, free English classes will be stopped and this problem can only get worse. Women coming to live in this country who want to learn English to communicate with the rest of the country are unable to do so. Professional translation services are not cheap and will probably end up costing the Government much more than English classes it is getting rid of.

Image by Sarah G, shared under a Creative Commons License

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