Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Matter of English

Writing in his book Leviathan in 1651, Thomas Hobbes said that a man that seeks precise truth has a need to remember what every name he uses stands for, and to use it in its rightful place; for failure to do so will leave him impossibly entangled. For that is the power of the language we call English. It is a language built up over more than 1,500 years, from its start as a Germanic dialect spoken by little more than 150,000 people to an international language understood by some two thousand million people. It is estimated that the English language currently has 171,476 words in use, with another 47,156 words listed by the Oxford English Dictionary as being obsolete.

That is a lot of complexity to become entangled in. It is a language that represents, as Melvyn Bragg puts it in his The Adventure of English, ‘the collective work of millions of people throughout the ages’. Yet, for all that inherited richness, it is a language that is still growing, as new words are added every year. Dr Samuel Johnston, the author of the first English Dictionary, would not recognise the distance his dictionary has travelled in terms of development. For example, he would certainly no longer be able to write that ‘there are no words in the English language beginning with the letter X’.

People born in the United Kingdom tend to take for granted the concept that the English language will be spoken wherever one travels in the world. However, despite its popularity, it is not the case that someone speaking the language can also instantly make themself understood; the nuances within the language can cause the greatest to stumble. This is an important concept when considering the case of people coming from abroad with the intention of working in the United Kingdom.

In England, we are fortunate to have many doctors working within the National Health Service whose country of origin is elsewhere. Without the knowledge, skills, hard work and caring dedication of these doctors, the NHS would struggle to survive at all. The majority of these doctors have excellent language skills, and would put my own linguistic ability to shame when you consider my inability to speak any other language beyond a rudimentary ‘schoolboy level’. Occasionally, however, we meet someone who can get by in English, but who lacks the finer depth of knowledge to ensure that they are understood when trying to explain difficult medical concepts to patients.

From April 1st, all doctors coming to England will need to demonstrate that they have a good command of the English language before they can start work. This is something that has long applied to doctors from outside the European Union, but will now apply to those from the EU as well. Hopefully, patients will no longer be left thinking ‘I heard every word, but what did he say?’ It should enable us all to benefit from the skills of overseas doctors, and is thus a welcomed step by the Government.

First Published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph 7 March 2013
© Copyright Robert M Jaggs-Fowler 2013

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