Monday, January 5, 2009

Language is Power

Language is power. Power to learn, grow, understand, and expand personal, professional, cultural, and geographical boundaries.

I am realizing this more and more every day. I know now that language is the link between truly understanding a culture and simply accepting (or rejecting) a culture based on your own (possibly incorrect) interpretations. I am quickly learning that one cannot truly state understanding of a culture simply by living in it for an extended period of time. In this case, opinions of what one may observe are based solely on whatever frame of reference our own cultures have instilled on us as we have grown up. To truly grasp the intricacies, history and breadth of a culture, we have to be able to ask our own questions, and we need to hear the answers based on the response of one who answers from the heart and soul of the culture in which we are but humble visitors. The language connection is much more profound than simple verbal communication, though dialogue is undeniably an important component.

Language in the nursing world is critical:

In terms of the more obvious gains, the more Arabic I learn, the better I can care for my patient in terms of assessment, explaining medications, procedures, etc. Another crucial component of care for me is psychosocial considerations which includes but is not limited to, being able to chat and bond with my patient, as well as being able to joke around a bit when appropriate.

On the next level, speaking even a bit of Arabic, shows an effort is being made on the part of the nurse, and this generally serves to gain a moderate amount of extra respect from the patient. Respect generally leads to compliance, something which is often difficult to attain in my work. The respect earned is amplified if one can actually put a few sentences together. If interest is made clear, many patients will willingly teach the eager learner (a.k.a. me) new words on a daily basis. This in turn takes language still to the next level as the teaching and learning serves to greatly strengthen the therapeutic bond between nurse and patient (= greater compliance! Hamdullallah! See below for translation…)…not to mention, the pronunciation attempts often provide comic relief for both.

As a general rule, trust is directly proportional to the breadth of the vocabulary built up. As knowledge grows, the nurse can better explain medications and procedures, and the patient feels the nurse truly understands voiced concerns, and can thus ask questions about their care and treatment. As the tables are turned in terms of language anywhere outside of the hospital, I can strongly attest to the loss of control and humbling resignation when one cannot voice a concern or ask a simple question to get what one needs. The benefit to gain honourable mention with mastery of this level of language is the power to negotiate and compromise…a skill which is incredibly important working as a nurse in Saudi culture!

The last level, and one which I am only just starting to understand and graze the edges of, is the deeper understanding gained of the culture as a whole based on the actual use of words and structure of the language itself. For example, there are many expressions used which involve reference to Allah (God):

- “Hamdullallah” (thanks be to God) is used generally after anything positive e.g. in response to “how are you?”, “the procedure is over”, “did you sleep well last night?”, etc. The word is often accompanied by a finger pointing up, and a quick glance to the heavens…

- “as-salamu-aleikum/wa-aleikum as-salam” (peace be upon you/and upon you peace) is the standard greeting and reply in Arabic. It is EXTREMELY important to reply to this greeting in the proper way

- “inshaallah” (with God’s will) almost ubiquitously accompanies any (positive) action one is hoping or intending to happen in the future, e.g. “inshaallah I will be there at 8pm”. It can sometimes be frustrating at first as an outsider as realizes that God’s will often pushes that meeting back to 9pm or later…however, after a bit of time here, one inadvertently starts using the expression just as freely, and accepting that God’s will sometimes has its own schedule…

- “wallah” is an expression for which I have not quite figured out an exact translation yet, as there seem to be many. It seems to be most often used as “well then!”, “oh my God!”, or “no way!” though I am sure many of my Saudi friends are cringing at these Canadian interpretations of mine!

- “mash’allah” is also another one I have not yet deduced a proper translation for…this one is sort of like “wallah”, but more of an endearing expression which is frequently used after gaining knowledge of a new piece of positive information pertaining most often to a person e.g. following “my sister is getting married” ( ;) ), or “I was accepted into university” (inshaallah!)

Once one is able to recognize just how often these expressions are used as well as the contexts in which they are spoken, one begins to realize just how seamlessly intertwined Allah is in the everyday life of a Saudi National.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my Arabic-speaking friends who put up with my constant barrage of “how do I say this in Arabic? What does this mean?”. Shukkran jazeelan koolo intum. Inshallah ana kalam Arabi alatool gabel shugulee hina kalass sabaa shahar!

I have a story to share with you about knowing the limits of your knowledge (or lack thereof) of a language, but as it is too long to tack on to this post, I will leave you on the edges of your seats until next week!



PS - The Arabic script above means "Allah".


Kerry said...

great post - interesting and insightful.

The Gori Wife said...

I don't speak Arabic, but I have a couple of Algerian friends who use "wallah" and "wallahi" to mean "swear by god." Like "wallahi, I'll take you to the store after I'm done." Or "walah, that's the cutest baby I've ever seen."

Messydesk said...

Let it be known that despite your wonderful command of the English language, and admirable progression in Arabic, you still need to learn certain faux pas about using "smiley's" in parenthesis.


sara said...

Wallah means I swear to God(Allah)
Ma sha Allah means as God has willed(wished)