True story. Long before life brought me into the medical interpreting field, I had occasion to seek medical attention from a doctor in Central America. The doctor immediately recognized that I was an American, and so he began speaking to me in English. The trouble was that his English was so heavily accented and broken that I could only understand part of what he was saying. I was fully capable of communicating in Spanish, and so it seemed that the doctor was looking at this consult as an opportunity to practice his English skills. I just wanted medical attention, but found myself in a communication quandary. I didn’t want to offend the doctor or damage his ego. First, it wouldn’t be polite. Second, this was the person I was relying on for medical advice and treatment, so staying on his good side seemed to be in my best interest. Fortunately, I was accompanied by a non-English speaker, who served as a scapegoat as I asked that we communicate in Spanish so that my companion could also understand. In reality, I wanted to communicate in Spanish so I could understand.
Fast forward years later to today, and I find myself observing similar situations in which individuals are eager to “try out” their foreign language skills at medical appointments in the U.S. Sometimes this means patients fumbling through broken English. Sometimes this means medical staff fumbling through broken Spanish. Often the result is a varying degree of uncertainty on the part of the listener. At best, the listener understood the meaning in spite of an awkward pronunciation or use of terminology. At worst the listener misunderstood the meaning all together and felt embarrassed or offended.
Health care interpreters are present to lift the burden of language disparities so that medical personnel can do what they do best and patients can be patients. Allowing the interpreter to do what he or she does best allows both parties to “be themselves” as they engage in topics from the casual to the complex.