September 17, 2013

The Universal Language of Pain

EMS in the big city means that we occasionally need to communicate with patients that don’t speak English.  The best result is if your agency pays for a telephone translation service.  I can call dispatch, they connect me to the language line, and the phone gets passed around while my questions are answered.  But this takes significant time and our job can be time-dependent.  So it is not a perfect answer if you’re in a hurry.  Plus, there are just some patients who don't get to press my phone to their face.

Although I understand that they work for many people, I am not convinced that medical Spanish classes are the answer, for two reasons.  First, there are patients who speak neither English nor Spanish.  Second, the concept in the classes strikes me like memorizing a play.  You learn “What is wrong?” and “My chest hurts.”  If the answer to your “what’s wrong” question is anything but “My chest hurts” (and it usually is), then you’re S.O.L.  Think of the answers you get in English to the what’s wrong question.  Answers start in the past tense, with extra words like “well...,” and involve a whole story. 

One simple trick that I learned is to memorize the word for “pain” in multiple languages.  The worst case is that you can point to various body parts and ask, “Pain?”  Between that and some pantomime (noisily pretend to vomit, point to them, and raise your eyebrows in the universal expression of questioning) you can usually get at least some idea of what the issue seems to be.  Sometimes it works, and it is better than nothing.  So here are the words for pain in commonly spoken languages, straight from the all-knowing sages at Google, with my attempt at writing the pronunciation in parentheses.  You can go online to hear audio files of the words being spoken, as well.

  • Spanish: dolor (duh-lor)
  • Arabic: alam (uh-luh-muh)  Big chunks of the Middle East and North Africa can speak some variation of Arabic.
  • Chinese/Mandarin: tòng ma (sounds like tung, spoken “downward” and the ma is how a question is indicated)  A lot of Chinese immigrants speak Cantonese rather than Mandarin, though, so watch out for that.
  • French: douleur (dew-ler)  Besides the obvious, many African countries speak French.
  • German: Schmerzen (schmer-tsen)
  • Hindi: Darda (Dard, with the ‘r’ barely spoken)  Hindi is the language of most of India.
  • Italian: dolore (dew-lourey)  Italian is less useful, but I’ve actually found that some Somali people can speak it.
  • Japanese: itami (ee-tam-ee said really fast)
  • Klingon: ‘oy’ Apparently the apostrophes mean something.  Just checking that you are paying attention.
  • Portuguese: dor (sounds like dure with a silent ‘e’ – the first syllable in ‘duration’) Portuguese is spoken in Brazil, as well as in Portugal.
  • Russian: bol’ (bull -  I’ve also had good results with bull-yeet)
  • Thai: Khwām cēbpwd (kwam seb-wood)
  • Vietnamese: dau (tau)
If you know words for pain in other languages that are commonly spoken in your jurisdiction, include them in the comments.

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