The healing power of English

// 23 September 2011

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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

Comments From You

Shellyanne // Posted 23 September 2011 at 5:40 pm

I agree with all of the sentiments in this post. The cuts were meant to happen this year which would have meant that only people on JSA or ESA would be eligible but in a U-turn we have been granted an extra year of classes for people on other benefits.

We have been making the points above for years now but our funding just keeps getting smaller and smaller year on year.

Many of the students who rely on this service are women who would otherwise have no other way of learning English. I work with predominantly Bengali women who would not be able to study if the classes weren’t free. Whilst their husbands are supportive they are not able (or willing) to pay the fees required for classes as they need the money to provide for the rest of the family.

What the government have also failed to think about is the amount of people – such as myself – who may find themselves out of work as our specialist area disappears. Personally, I find it sad because I have been an ESOL (and other SfL) teacher since 2004. I love my job and I honestly don’t know what I’ll do when it goes. I suppose that I can teach Numeracy or another area but it just isn’t the same and I am frustrated by knowing that it isn’t disappearing due to lack of need but lack of care from the government about people who have as much of a right to education as anyone else.

It is vital that we continue to fight for the rights of ESOL students so if you would like to find out more then please have a look at this site:

Jennie // Posted 23 September 2011 at 6:17 pm

When I was a child my mother worked for a charity dedicated to teaching English to women in this position. I often went with her and played with the women’s children, learning language skills from them as they learned from me. Although I agree that this sort of thing really should be funded by the state (apart from anything else, it would save money!) there are still charities out there doing work of this kind. I urge those who are concerned by this story to consider getting involved. They’re particularly keen on finding volunteers with tutoring experience of training in teaching English as a foreign language, but there are all sorts of ways you can help. My mother made some great friends doing this job and it enriched her life and mine.

Rhubarb // Posted 23 September 2011 at 6:44 pm

Particularly interesting in relation to this story:

Certain sections of the media/public seem to expect that people will just ‘pick it up’ and anything else is deliberate resistence to ‘integration’. For many people – women in particular – there is not the ‘need’, will, resources or the inclination, either coming from themselves or their wider communities.

kinelfire // Posted 24 September 2011 at 10:31 am

I completely agree with this post, having heard the sentiment that ‘if you live here, you should learn the language’ expressed a few times more than I’d like over the years. (Once is more than I’d’ve liked)

I calso can’t help but wonder why hospitals don’t seem to have access to translators. Probably the cost, admittedly, as is everything else lacking in the NHS (which PFI will not solve)

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