Getting help in an emergency if you don't speak the language ...

Celia volunteers on our Talking Together project, teaching basic English to women who can't speak the language. She describes the challenge of getting help when there's an emergency.

‘When I first arrived here, I called 999 practically every day – until they told me to stop!’ said one of my students.  My class is all female, a mix of Turkish and Somali ladies with school-age children who have all been here a few years.  Our topic this week is emergency services and we’ve been doing role-play. I quickly realise that there’s a lot more to it than simply learning essential vocabulary and practising a script to ask for help from the emergency services operator.  

All the students found it very challenging to describe common emergency situations. In real life, fear scrambles your brain and affects your ability to describe what’s happening, especially in a foreign language.  There are linguistic and cultural subtleties, which are hard to clarify but important to understand. For example, in the case of an accident, the difference between ‘hitting your head’ and a ‘headache’, how to describe a personal attack or to explain your location if you’re involved in an emergency outside the home.

It reminded me of an experience I had many years ago when I first went to live in a wild and woolly place in the Middle East. Someone broke into our house at night.  In a blind panic, I ran to the nearest neighbouring house with no idea how I would be able to explain the situation with my very limited Arabic.  The best I could manage was ‘bad man in my house, please come’. Fortunately, they did come and chased the intruder away – with guns!

Another student tells me how she had to call the emergency services when she went to visit a heavily pregnant friend.  Arriving at the house, she found her friend in advanced labour.  The ambulance soon arrived and the baby was delivered safely at home. All’s well that ends well. It transpired later that her friend had never wanted to have her baby in hospital anyway and might not have called 999 if left to her own devices.

On reflection, I concluded that this class was about far more than language and that we had only scratched the surface in terms of exploring cultural perceptions of when and why they would call emergency services. There is much of importance to talk about. Domestic violence, depression and pregnancy problems were issues raised by my students.   

A basic English class may not be the right forum for such potentially controversial discussion but these issues came up. I note that currently the healthcare module only deals with physical health problems.  Perhaps it should include some mental health vocabulary too.

If you'd like to know more about our Talking Together project, take a look here