I don’t travel much, so I don’t know a lot about other parts of the country. I would guess though, that Northern Virginia probably has a population with a diversity of languages greater almost than anyplace but New York. I try therefore to be able to speak at least a few words in a language my patient understands. Doing so really seems to set them at ease. In some cases, though, I get chewed out.

For instance, we entered the ED and saw a rather flustered and grumpy 98 year old female patient, glaring at everyone around her. The nurse said, “Here’s Mrs. X, but she only speaks Ukranian. Her daughter was translating but she had to leave.”

Privet! May nya za voot DTs“, Hello! My name is DTs says I (yeah, it’s grammatically piss-poor Russian, but they’re close enough). Our patient’s face lights up and she’s the nicest, least-grumpy patient one could wish for. When we leave her at the receiving facility she calls down God and all the saints to watch over us and our children to the thirtieth generation or some such thing.

So we got that going for us, which is nice.

We leave our Korean patient at the rest home. “Hang-uun-ule peem-nee dah!” says DTs,bowing out. I hope and sincerely pray it means, “Goodbye and good luck!”, at least I think it does. The patient stares intently for a few moments and releases a spate of rapid-fire Korean back at me. I don’t know if I just told her off, or she’s saying, “If you speak Korean, why didn’t you before?”, but it’s time to go…

Spanish is one we deal with so routinely that, well, I have a routine. In very poor Spanish I can tell my patient, or his family, “Before we go I need to get your signature on this form. When you sign this form, you’re giving us permission to take you in the ambulance; to care for you during the ride, and to send the bill for the ride to the insurance company so you don’t have to worry about it.”

I have to be careful to say this slower than I’m able. When I speak too quickly the patient gets the impression I speak fluent Spanish. A pediatric patient’s mom signed the form and, probably thought, “Finally! Someone who speaks Spanish! I can at last tell the story!” Faster than an auctioneer, she starts: “My daughter first began having this difficulty about three days ago, no, it was four days ago and…” I had to do the “whoa whoa” hand motions and apologize for the misunderstanding.

Now, DTs speaks none of these, but rather carries a somewhat extensive electronic phrase book so I may ask “Chest pain?”, “Allergies?”, “Nausea?” and such. Since I put it together myself I try and verify it when I can.

I just don’t get Chinese, though. I’m considering just leaving that one alone.

Our patient spoke only Chinese, but his wife spoke very good English. “If I wanted to say, “Hello, my name is DTs”, would it be: Wo shee DTs yee sheng? I’m just checking…”

“Oh, yes!” said the wife. “That’s exactly right. You would say: ” and here she said something completely different. Not even a good pronunciation of what I tried, but completely and utterly different syllables.

I stared at her for a second, then asked, “So… I’d say…?”

And she said something else, different from the first thing she said.

Richard Feynman, in his autobiography Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, relates the following:

“When I was in Brazil I had struggled to learn the local language, and decided to give my physics lectures in Portuguese. Soon after I came to Caltech, I was invited to a party hosted by Professor Bacher. Before I arrived at the party, Bacher told the guests, “This guy Feynman thinks he’s smart because he learned a little Portuguese, so let’s fix him good: Mrs Smith, here (she’s completely Caucasian), grew up in China. Let’s have her greet Feynman in Chinese.”

“I walk into the party innocently, and Bacher introduces me to all these people: “Mr. Feynman, this is Mr. So-and-so.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Feynman.”

“And this is Mr. Such-and-such.”

“My pleasure, Mr. Feynman.”

“And this is Mrs. Smith.”

Ai, choong, ngong jia!” she says, bowing.

This is such a surprise to me that I figure the only thing to do is to reply in the same spirit. I bow politely to her, and with complete confidence I say, “Ah ching, jong jien!

“Oh, my God!” she exclaims, losing her own composure. “I knew this would happen – I speak Mandarin and he speaks Cantonese!”


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