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What if We Can't Communicate?
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One of my fears is that I will find myself, a very old lady, in an Assisted Living Facility or Retirement Home, unable to communicate with the staff, because they don't speak English clearly enough to communicate with me. Many service personnel in this part of the country are recent immigrants from all around the world.

I don't mean the simple things like, "Hello Ms. Rhubarb, how are you today?" but more complex things like, "You're supposed to take the blood pressure medication, 1/2 at breakfast, 1 at lunch and 1/2 before bedtime, but only on alternate Thursdays."

And don't make a joke; it may be misunderstood that you are senile, or taken as an insult. Old people are assumed to be mentally challenged, anyway, on top of the language barrier.

My husband's nurse at the VA yesterday (dispensing meds) was from the Ukraine. Her grammar and vocabulary were excellent, but her accent was so thick it was difficult to understand her.

My husband is in a room with three other men, and the whole time I was there I found myself repeating the instructions she was giving them, because they didn't/couldn't understand her. She kept trying, but unfamiliar, technical words were buried in a dense eastern European accent.

I admit that I'm more comfortable with people who speak English with an accent that I can understand easily. And I think that many people feel the same way. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in India, I finally decided to try speaking with an Indian English accent--the faces lighted up, the eyes brightened and everyone around me started speaking at once. Clearly, my American English had been getting in the way of communication.

"Simply, Madam, now you are speaking English correctly, isn't it? We are very happy."

Recently there has been a report which studied young children (early elementary ages and younger) and how they formed friendships. The result was that the children chose friends based more on whether they spoke alike than whether they looked alike (my experience with children's awareness of race differences is that there is a Great Divide between 8 and 9 years old, in that regard).

Indeed, infants show preference for accents and language spoken around them, even during prenatal exposure. How someone speaks, the rhythm and pitch of their words, defines the closeness of the relationship. (This is true for the music they are exposed to before birth, also).

Language, being able to communicate, being able to extract pre-language social cues, is what binds us together. Without it, we are strangers; non-native speakers of English are outsiders, sometimes not on a cognitive level, but on an intuitive level.

Here in Los Angeles we are very much in the middle of a veritable Tower of Babel. Language prejudice, more than race, may account for many of our misunderstandings.

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