Who's talking?

April 1, 2003
Learning a second language will do more than affect the bottom line of the practice.

By Shirley Gutkowski

If you're too old to learn a second language as a child (the best time to learn), never fear. All is not lost. Learning a second language will do more than affect the bottom line of the practice. Physical activity will keep your body younger and learning a new language can keep the brain cells firing synaptic chemicals, shaking loose the physical changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer's disease. In the famous Nun Study of the University of Kansas, it was found that the nuns who had a better grasp of the English language upon entering the convent delayed the devastating effects of Alzheimer's.

Learning anything new for that matter will keep your brain active. Lifelong learners enjoy better mental health. The more a brain is used the better it functions; creativity breeds creativity.

Many times clinical oral health care providers are asked to visit the elderly or apply sealants as part of a community service project. Often, this involves underserved populations, and, frequently, English is their second language. These brave souls who have left their original culture behind now try to communicate in stilted, slow, heavily accented, almost unintelligible forms of English. The feeling of helplessness is overpowering for those who are language-deficient. They are unable to proceed until the translator or maybe a relative arrives. That feeling of helplessness dies when the motivated clinician becomes more proficient in the most appropriate language for her geographic location.

Language is not a very hot topic. People who talk and write about improving customer service and increasing production talk about a totally different kind of language, the language of sales or perhaps the language of science. Establishing a dental practice where a second or third language is spoken can draw throngs of people at the door in certain areas of the country. A second language for dental hygiene students should be an important part of a "well-rounded" curriculum. Whether it is Spanish, Japanese, American Sign Language, or Arabic, having the knowledge to communicate out of the current custom will set one apart and make that person increasingly valuable to a practice.

According to the American Census Bureau Statistics 2000 on language, nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population five years and older speak a language other than English at home. Those who speak English less than "very well" is just more than 8 percent. Thirty-three percent of the Bakersfield, Calif., population speaks a language other than English at home. The Brownsville-Harlingen-San Benito area of Texas reports 79 percent of children over five years old live in a home where English is not the primary language.

In contrast, 3.5 percent of Muncie, Ind., residents five years and older live in a home where English is the second language while only 1 percent of the population considers its grasp of the English language to be less than "very well."

The great melting pot called United States of America has a long history of foreign-born people emigrating here for a better life, or just to meet up with those already here from the "Old Country," according to AmeriStat, a government online site. Wisconsin was one of the top six states that attracted immigrants in 1890. Today, nearly three-quarters of the foreign-born population resides in one of eight states: California, Florida, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Illinois.

Twenty-four percent of the people aged 25 to 34 in Muncie have finished college with a baccalaureate degree. In Brownsville-Harlingen-San Benito, Texas, 12 percent finished college. Large cities have diverse populations. It seems that living in a large city obligates one to be proficient in a second language. There may be a correlation between a second language and higher education.

It's obvious from the census bureau data that language is not the significant barrier to education. For instance, 36 percent of San Francisco's children speak a language other than English at home, but more than 43 percent of the population over 25 have finished college. This seems to prove that language barriers contain pores where the motivated can pass through to become educated, if they so choose.

Another consideration to learning a second language or having a translator available at the office is a legal one. Can a patient give informed consent if they cannot effectively communicate with their care provider? Is a minor child a legal translator? Is interpretation as good as verbatim translation? Communication barriers are potential fodder for legal suits in daily dental practice as well as emergency situations.

This country, as an ideal, abhors discrimination and barriers. If the dental practice is in an area where a significant patient population is in a particular language minority, it can be deemed discriminatory not to have a person on staff who speaks that language. Immigrants arrive in the United States with their own ideals for learning our language and customs. It's only right that medical and dental care be available to them.

Learning a second language provides a benefit to the student, the practice, and the patient. Pick the language and put off the mental effects of aging for yourself.

Shirley Gutkowski, RDH, BSDH, has been a full time practicing dental hygienist in Madison, Wis., since 1986. Ms. Gutkowski is published in print and on Internet sites, and speaks to groups through Cross Links Presentations. She can be contacted at [email protected].