Sunday, February 24, 2013

I walk English, I talk English...

So it has come to pass. Finally it had to come to this...the death of someone caused by a professional who didn't have enough grasp of the English language. And for us as professionals, a sigh of relief that it now will be taken seriously enough- although the circumstances that has made this come to light couldn't be more heart breaking -especially for the family concerned.

It has always been a mystery for me. When, far back in 1997, I decided to take an exam to enter into the UK system of medicine, there was an obligatory rule to have been able to show proficiency in the English language. There was an exam called IELTS and for the purpose of this blog, I fished it out from amongst the dusty collection of one of my files. Interspersed among those early year certificates, sat ensconced the IELTS certificate. There were 4 categories that one had to pass (Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking)- and simply put if you didn't pass this exam, you were not allowed to even sit in the entrance exams which would grant you eligibility to enter the UK medical system. And quite rightly too...I wouldn't expect or even want an Englishman to come to a rural part of Calcutta and eke out a living without the faintest understanding of what the local language was, so why should it be the other way around either? The world may think that India in its economic boom are all swanky English speaking folks....no they aren't... that's the externalised view one sees...in fact there are swaths of areas where the English language has as much understanding as say..Klingon. Anyhow, I digress.

For folks like me the exams, in all honesty, was a doddle. That was because  I or shall I say, kids who came from our background were educated in convent schools and English was the only language spoken. In fact, I still remember times when students were fined for speaking Bengali on school grounds, situated in the heart of Calcutta- as they had to know and learn to speak English, A catholic school had its advantages- and spending 12 years of your life saying the Lords prayers was no sweat...as my dad said..."Not really fussed which God you pray to..as long as you get your grades right!". You see in those days- and maybe even now, political correctness had little place for existence...did that stand me in good stead? In two words..Hell Yeah. Come the IELTS..me- along with most of those who studied in schools such as St Xavier s school, Don Bosco School, La Martiniere, Loreto etc etc...breezed through the exams. But there were also a significant majority who either by choice or due to sheer lack of finances couldn't attend such schools...and they spent hours attending coaching classes, listening to tapes, getting ready for the exams...sometimes even failing the exams, retaking it- and THEN having to sit through the medical entrance exams..all for the proverbial pot at the end of the rainbow..the opportunity to work in Britain.The determination on their part to learn the nuances of a new language was only to be commended and admired.

And then we came here..to find that medical graduates from the EU were..exempt. Poor souls that we were, we assumed this was "OK" because surely anyone European or coming from those countries knew all about English..surely? And then reality happened. We saw droves of people of different nationalities with shockingly poor English, people who couldn't read, write or even speak properly. Attempts to raise, even gently, any such queries got stonewalled by the political correctness brigade. After all, lets not anyone feel bad that they couldn't speak the local language...who cared if a profession based on the bedrock of communication suffered a tad or two? At the level I am, one can only reject such folks based on CVs or recommend they don't work any more in the hospital...but a nationalised system to flag such folks? A simple check to suggest that they were proficient in English? Dream on brother.

So fingers crossed..maybe things will improve. And for the Daily Mail or its readers, don't jump on to the "foreigner" bandwagon. The ones you guys spend so much time directing your ire at..those folks from the African continent, Indian subcontinent or anywhere in South East Asia...we ALL actually did an exam. Its just that there has never been any uniformity for similar folks for whom English wasn't the first language..their get out clause was that they belonged to the European community...so hopefully finally there will be. Hopefully there won't be another incident like this..its just a sad indictment of the times that it takes a fatality to raise such issues. The million dollar question is what it will achieve.

If there ever was an example to show that political correctness for all its worth sometimes needs to take a back-seat ..here it is. If someone who is dealing with lives doesn't know the language in which he is communicating with the patient, then asking him to stop working or withholding his permission to work isn't a breach of anyone's human rights. Its simply about actually saving someone from poor care.

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