by Marta Elian M.D. Consultant Neurologist & Expert Witness
Four Steps to Become Multilingual
1. By all means carefully avoid a world language such as English, French and Spanish etc. as a mother tongue as well as for primary school education.
2. Choose one or two vernacular languages instead such as say Estonian or Turkish.
3. Get yourself parents determined and able to give good practical advice. (Mine said “what this life will bring you we do not know? With Hungarian and Rumanian you will not get very far – so better learn German, French and English”).
4. Listen to and follow their sensible instructions - which I did as a teenager. (Hebrew – the most difficult of all – came later – by necessity rather than by choice becoming the language of my diploma).
How is it helpful to be polyglot?
Interpreters are costly not only because their hourly rate has to be added to the expense; also because the consultation takes almost double the time as all questions and answers have to be repeated. Expense aside – some interpreters – especially those volunteering for relatives and friends are unreliable; they do not translate verbatim thus conveying what they think would be useful for their protégé.
A few examples from my large repertoire follow:
1. Having had a RTA while in the UK a French speaking tourist accompanied by his French medical records returned to arrange compensation. Cost of translation of the notes and of the interpreter were spared to please the solicitor. To be able unexpectedly to express himself in his own language pleased the client.
2. A young woman had an accident while visiting her sister in the UK. She returned to the UK for Medico-legal reasons - her sister accompanied her to the consultation to translate. Asking her country of origin she answered– Moldova (now Russia it used to be Rumania). Great was the surprise when I started to speak Rumanian saving time and giving her the satisfaction to tell her own story.
3. Asked to see a man labelled disoriented and psychotic in the Accident and Emergency department; it was suggested to refer him to the psychiatric hospital as an inpatient. On examination: a variety of questions were repeatedly answered with identical five words – in English. He seemed to struggle to express himself – realising that without success. After carefully listening to aseries of identical words I have detected a Hungarian accent; when I addressed him in Hungarian his eyes lit up smiling gratefully. I realised he is not psychotic but aphasic and his place was not in the psychiatric but in the neurological ward.
4. A solicitor advertised to contact his assistant Aniko for appointments. Unmistakably a Hungarian name I offered my services. A cooperation followed with referral of several clients from Hungary. The consultations conducted in Hungarian – their history simultaneously written down in English. The report in English of course. Clients were grateful and the solicitor saved money. I did not do badly either.
5. After a minor head injury and brief stay in the Accident and Emergency department of the University Hospital a new immigrant claimed he was advised to give up recently acquired work for six months and to go on benefits in order “to avoid complications”. I had reservations for this story. His English was quite good. He then boasted he speaks several languages equally well “Deutsch” included. When I switched to “Deutsch” he did not understand a word let alone speak it. The final proof to support my suspicion of his made-up story.
6. After a RTA a Lebanese man was referred to the Accident and Emergency department with a great variety of complaints and no neurological deficit. He allegedly studied medicine in Lithuania and planned to finish it in England. Why in a foreign language when Vilnius has an excellent medical school? Remained unanswered. After leaving Lithuania aiming to settle in the UK and finish his studies he was forced to make an eight month stopover in Rumania because of “administrative difficulties.” The story sounded doubtful to me as Rumanian is a Latin language relatively easy to learn; it is practically impossible to spend several months there without acquiring a basic knowledge. When I addressed him in Rumanian he was not even able to identify the language I have used.
Thus proving my reservation to his story justified and disproving his story.
7. Both parents arrived with their six year old daughter who had apparently two epileptic attacks after a head injury. As is my custom whenever a child is the client I try to give her the “grown-up treatment” sitting in the main armchair to be interviewed before I ask the parents. This way the child becomes more cooperative and at times tells the facts as far as possible as they really were and not embellished or to the contrary by the parents. I also get an idea of the child’s mental age. She followed my hands pointing to the armchair but none of the verbal instruction. Becasue her looks, gaze and non-verbal communication/behaviour I have expected her to be at least of normal intelligence. The parents then informed me they came to the UK only recently and the child only speaks her mother tongue which is Hebrew. The parent’s embarrassment disappeared and the little girl became very talkative and my expectation of
dealing with an intelligent child became justified – the moment I suddenly switched to Hebrew.
The above examples support the view that being polyglot brings benefits even in medicine.