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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Learning language to live

Rika Kayama

There are times when I examine patients who have come to Japan from other Asian countries. On some of these occasions, I am forced to reconsider what languages really are.

If a patient says, "I'm bad at Japanese," both of us will have to communicate in English. If so, I hand over the English version of a medical questionnaire to be filled in before consultation. Sometimes I find spelling mistakes and other errors when I go over the completed paper. In those cases I can't help but tell the nurse and other people, for example, "It says 'bac' here, with no k. But it means 'back,' right?"

However, when the patient enters my office and we begin to talk, I realize that they are so much better at English than me. Those from Nepal, Myanmar and other countries speak tremendously better and comprehensible English compared to a person like me. As for myself, I stammer pathetically and say things like, "Um, yes..."

Because English is a language, communication is more important than accuracy. I know that in my head, but I'm always bothered by spelling and grammar -- part of the reason being that I had trouble studying English for entrance exams. And in situations when I do have to speak English, I can't convey even 10 percent of what I really want to say.

One day, I asked one of my patients who had completely recovered after a few visits, "Why are you so good at English?" The patient, who came to Japan from Vietnam, was showing remarkable progress in learning Japanese in addition to English. He smiled and answered in Japanese, "Otherwise, I won't be able to make a living. I won't be able to attend schools and get a job."

Oh, I see. I was convinced. It's enough for us Japanese to know our own language to lead a regular life, as long as we stay in Japan. We merely study English because it's on the school curriculum. However, a person who came to Japan from Vietnam, and is studying the language with a goal to enroll in a school here, cannot even get drugs at a hospital if they don't know the language. In those cases, it makes sense to learn how to say, "I need medicine for these symptoms" first, even with some grammatical mistakes.

I wonder if I can still learn English that is essential for living, to get my message through, without being bothered too much about the spelling of terms or word order. To patients who say "I have these symptoms" in English, I would like to reply in comprehensible English, "I understand. It's all right!" And not be picky about small rules, at least in my office.

(By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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