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Language trouble behind many medical mishaps
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Language trouble behind many medical mishaps

Published: 31 Dec 2012 10:55 GMT+01:00
Updated: 31 Dec 2012 10:55 GMT+01:00

Chief medical officers can only communicate with one-third of their staff in German and more patients are complaining about many physicians' poor command of the German language, the head of the Berlin Medical Association said on Monday.

Günther Jonitz, in an interview with Deutschlandradio Kultur, said these communication problems are negatively affecting doctor-patient relations and are the main reason when things go wrong.

Physicians who speak fluent German are increasingly removed from patient care and put in charge of writing reports, he said. “The risks are growing,” he told the programme.

The main culprit is economics and a “truly lousy healthcare policy” that puts too much emphasis on numbers and economic profit and forgets people in the system.

German physicians and nurses however are no longer willing to put up with this, Jonitz said.

“Whoever can, leaves for other countries and works where a doctor or nurse is well regarded – in Switzerland, Scandinavia, England, France (and) Holland.”

Their places are being filled with doctors from countries where working conditions are even worse than in Germany,” Jonitz said.

DAPD/The Local/mw

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

12:37 December 31, 2012 by MattyB
Has anybody ever thought of overhauling the German language? Do you really need upwards of 7 or 8 ways to say a simple English word like "your?" It's no wonder immigrants, even highly educated ones, have trouble with the language and take 5, 7, 10 years to become somewhat fluent.

I love Germany, and believe it or not, like the German language, but it smacks too much of English in the 15th or 16th century.
13:13 December 31, 2012 by wegosolo
^^ Saying that out loud could cause a riot MattyB! Heaven forbid anyone question German culture. God knows they pride themselves on how "perfect" their systems are.
13:24 December 31, 2012 by twisted
I've been living in Germany for more than 12 years and my German is minimal at best. Granted, I have a German speaking wife who handles most day to day language function and since I don't work (retired), German is not needed for day to day activities in general. That said, I find the language so confusing and certainly agree with MattyB. I've studied other languages but this one really throws me. Certainly I don't claim to be of any great intelligence, but German really is tough to learn.
13:34 December 31, 2012 by Englishted
Thank goodness there are others who are still finding problems with speaking German ,I can do the basics (still often forget to say Sie and say du much to my wife's disgust ) but the finer points are still hard and don't get easier as I get older.

But on the subject it is ironic that the U.K. is saying the same about newly arrived Doctors and is planning to raise the standard of English required.

So a good slide into 2013 to all. ;-)
14:31 December 31, 2012 by honeybeee
that's the reason for that it currently needs more en-german mixed kids for next major generation in German .
15:34 December 31, 2012 by The-ex-pat
I have been here for 15 years, married to German for 22 years. First thing I did was six months of Volkshochschule (it was free) when we moved here. After that I pushed my pride deep, deep down in my pocket and got out and started to communicate and tried to laugh at my mistakes. And believe me I made some corkers...................

It is really ironic that a regular running theme here at The Local is that people do not learn the language to a degree where they can communicate and yet here we have people who after many years here still cannot boast to more than the basics and still forget about Du and Sie (the basic of basics).

Now I guess I will sit back and be block caps to death by offended forum members..........

PS, And no, I am not in any way a natural foreign language learner, I struggled to learn.
15:58 December 31, 2012 by Englishted
@ The-ex-pat

Hope you are sitting comfortably so I'll begin.

Well aren't you the lucky one, I also tried a 6month Volkshochschule course ,which was not free it cost full price.

I also had to attend the course 20 minutes after I got home from a 8 and half hour physical job .It is also a age thing I didn't start till I was over 40 years old.

It is not a question of not wanting to as some of the articles you refer to in the Local.

P.S. How many times have you been told after addressing somebody with Sie ,that you should use du? ,I have been told that many ,many times in a work situation and there have been many different jobs as I can only find agency work.
18:43 December 31, 2012 by Kennethmac2000
Also agree with MattyB - if Germany and the German-speaking countries want to make a step change in how attractive they are to foreign labour (which I'm not sure they do, but they will have to if they want to maintain their standard of living in the face of one of the oldest populations in the OECD), they really must think about simplifying their language.

For example, do you really need 16 different ways to say "the"? (OK, there aren't actually 16 different words, but you still need to understand the 16 different combinations of gender and case.) Sure, certain constructions that currently only work because of the use of a particular case wouldn't work any more, but these can easily be replaced - even in today's German language - by changing the word order or by using an extra preposition. Not a big deal.

No gender and no case would make for a language that is so much quicker to learn for non-native speakers. And ultimately doesn't that benefit everyone?
18:49 December 31, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles
Whislt I agree with how difficult German is and my German is also limited I must say that most Germans don't take offence with bad grammer from a non-native speaker. I generally use the 'Du' for most of the time and apart from the odd HR manager I pi$$ed off it generally has not been a problem for me in the course of my job and life. Of course if I was writing doctors prescriptions or arguing in court then I can imagine a top standard of this difficult language is a necessary. Generally I find Germans find our non-native mistakes as charming and if they are the type that are picky with my German then they are the type I don't want to know anyway.
19:37 December 31, 2012 by Dayzee
Being someone who has both an excellent command of German and spent weeks at a time in a German hospital I can only agree with most of the posters here. The German medical terms are not Latin or Greek based rather their own German entity which is, in some instances, extremely difficult to discipher.

Secondly, Germany is not made up of just Germans anymore and many foreign residents and visitors also need medical attention. In that time that I stayed in the 4-bed room I only had 1 roommate that was German. All the others were of some foreign descent with carying degrees of knowledge of the language. The cold doctors would just come in and bark at the patients that this is what they have this is what they have to do and these are the tests they are going to have. Only once did a male nurse attempt to explain to a Russian Oma what she was going to have done to her.

Wouldn't it be easier if ALL the staff at the hospitals were required to learn English to a sufficient level of communication. They wouldn't have to speak to the German patients in English, but this would make the country more appealing to foreign proffesionals with higher degrees. The government keeps talking about getting Professional degree holders from every other country to fill the spots here in Germany, but then turn around and make issues like this.
20:53 December 31, 2012 by Tonne
I also find the German language very difficult (and German insurance policies simply impossible to understand clearly) but on the whole I find Germans very forgiving of mistakes and they try hard to understand my fractured German. You simply have to try.

However, I don't agree that German should be changed simply to make it easier for foreigners to learn. As with any country, language is a reflection of its history and culture and should be allowed to develop naturally.

And why have all hospital staff learn English? If they are working in Germany, surely they should learn to speak (and write) in German? I can only imagine the misunderstandings that could occur between different nationalities each speaking their particular version of English.
22:23 December 31, 2012 by MattyB
18:49 December 31, 2012 by Berlin fuer alles

I do agree with your first point. Most Germans I interact with on a day-to-day basis are very forgiving of my mistakes, and try to help me out. In general most of the Germans I speak with readily and openly admit their langauge is overly complex and extremely difficult to learn. I think this is why many will simply begin to speak English with me if they can. Overall I think they appreciate the effort, but don't expect much from foreigners like myself.
11:19 January 1, 2013 by jillesvangurp
I manage quite alright in German these days but am much more comfortable using English (or my native language Dutch). I've lived in several countries and I just don't think in these modern times it is realistic for everybody to speak the native language of whichever country they happen to be active net contributors to the local economy in (which is what most migrants are).

I was born in the Netherlands and have lived in Sweden and Finland before moving here. By far the most pragmatic attitude when it comes to languages is found in Finland. Finnish is magnitudes more difficult to learn than German. So difficult in fact that most Finnish switch to English the second they detect you are from outside the country. It justs saves a lot of time and works out better for everyone. Unlike the German or French they don't get pedantic about their language and recognize that the world abroad is quite large and that they have an economic dependence. This attitude is found across society and I never needed the help of translators dealing with bureaucracy, taxes, insurance or medical stuff.

As much as I like Germany, German is not a major international language like Spanish, Chinese, or indeed English. It would be good for Germany to adapt to this and be less hostile towards non native speakers. It's a big world out there and Germany's economic fate is largely tied to its non German speaking population (e.g. China).
13:53 January 1, 2013 by zeddriver
While I have not been treated rudely for misspeaking the language. It has been hard enough that I have given up learning. I'm not sure that any German understands the meaning of context. I.E. My German neighbor and friend when speaking English (very well I might add) Says something to the effect of. When baking a cake you must STEER the mix gently. While she did mispronounce STIRRING. I understood what she meant. That does not seem to happen in the reverse.

I was at our local bakery and a German asked me where I lived. While pointing to the ground. I said in German. That I lived right here in. Then said the name of our small village. As I made the wrong inflection on the umlat in my villages name. The German fella just stood there with a rather blank look upon his face. He just could not connect the fact that I said right here, And I was pointing to the ground. That was when I gave up.

this sums it all up. It's from a Mark Twain book.

Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless,

and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it,

hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks

he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid

the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over

the page and reads, "Let the pupil make careful note of the following

EXCEPTIONS." He runs his eye down and finds that there are more

exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again,

to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand. Such has been,

and continues to be, my experience. Every time I think I have got one

of these four confusing "cases" where I am master of it, a seemingly

insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with

an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground from under

me.
16:20 January 1, 2013 by raandy
I speak German only when necessary, and my German is nothing to brag about.

True enough ,Germans are mostly very tolerant about poor usage. When I speak my accent is immediately detected and most answer me in English.I have for years now started any communications with Germans in English and find most will respond in English if possible if not I resort to my no so correct German.

I was asked at Kaufland if everything was ok , I wanted to say in German ya every time but did not know if it is das mal der mal or die mal, ruled out die mal and got it wrong when i asked my wife who said it is das mal, jedesmal.

another often discouraging thing is my children usually say to me ,Dad speak English.

When your over 40 and then some its not so easy. Right Englishted.
16:56 January 1, 2013 by Leo Strauss
It`s not a tü-mah!!! :)
06:11 January 2, 2013 by Anny One again
There you have it !!

How often I had to read;"... otherwise you would be speaking German right now." Obviously 67 years ago many had reject the opportunity to learn the language,

and now you are all complaining.

In addition, I noted each of your names,in the event that someone makes fun of me for my gramma failures,altough actually the google translator is to blame for,wich i use to recheck my english texts very often.

Btw what about the english laguage, Hm ?102 year old Ed Rondthaler declared "The nonsense of english spelling." U Tube /watch?v=XTjeoQ8gRmQ
07:14 January 2, 2013 by RainerL
The German language is not an easy one and neither is the English language. How ever" I wonder why perhaps the English language being a universal one could not be integrated?
08:28 January 2, 2013 by MattyB
13:53 January 1, 2013 by zeddriver

"While she did mispronounce STIRRING. I understood what she meant. That does not seem to happen in the reverse."

Absolutely! I have found that to be very true, and very frustrating. Which brings me to:

06:11 January 2, 2013 by Anny One again

English is a bit odd, and there was a time when I would say it was a difficult language, but far too many foreigners (non-native English speakers) have told me that English was a VERY easy langauge for them to learn. I spoke with a Portugese man not to long ago who openly laughed when I suggested English was difficult to learn. He, quite obviously, felt differently. I have met many who were speaking in complete sentences only a few weeks/months after beginning to learn.

Going back to what zeddrive stated; in English you can speak like a mentally handicap caveman and most native English speakers will understand you. In German, however, I have found that you must get everything just right, or nearly right, or you will earn the "blank stare of confusion."
09:52 January 2, 2013 by AClassicRed
I have found English speakers to be much more forgiving and understanding, often not even mentioning German peoples errors in pronounciation and wording when they are speaking English. The meaning is understood well enough. In reverse, however, even when its obvious they understand even a minor error when an English speaker is speaking in German, either they pretend they do not understand you or they are dismissive or ignore. I say I know they pretend, because after ten additional minutes trying to get it right, they basically say, "Oh, yes, you should have said thus-and-so in the first place." I get that mostly from people who have poor or no English language (or anything but German) and/or haven't visited or traveled in other countries before. If they had or did, I believe they would be more empathetic.

I do not think the language should revamp itself just to have the county appeal to non-German speakers. For anyone who has studied sociology or psychology or similar applications, they know that would certainly have a marked effect on the people as a whole, almost always negative. I just think there's a quirk in many Germans to have to have a "leg up" so to speak, in this case meaning they love to correct others but hate to be corrected themselves. Whether its language or anything else. I teach some Native American cultures, etc. here, moderately popular in some quarters, and I cannot tell you how many times a German will attempt to correct me because of something they read in a book by a non-native who never even visited Indian Country. Or not even that, but just because they think it can't be so.

My German language skills have been better if/when I use it more but that isn't anyone else's or the languages fault. They shouldn't switch anything to accommodate me, nor do I believe or agree with those who suggest so. The simple fact is, whether it is insurance or legal documents, etc. even many average Germans have difficulty, so there are intermediaries. Those developed out of need, whether for Germans or non-Germans. My very good friends one who is a long time teacher and another who is a retired German language teacher both agree with that, and the former even says there are some aspects which even escapes them.

As someone else mentioned, I have traveled in other countries, Finland, Russia and others, and begin learning those languages also. Finnish is more difficult, especially because of pronunciation and rhythm, and certainly with Russian you have Cyrillic, but it is the attitude of the people and country that is the difference when you do try. In Finland, I could even switch to English or Swedish to communicate and be understood and it was all very good natured, even yes, with more complex topics or in offices. In Germany? Much more unlikely.
10:47 January 2, 2013 by raandy
I have also found that if your pronunciation is off most all German native speakers understand you, but when you are dealing with a non native German speaker you are very often misunderstood.

I once tried to order a Turkish Döner and the man asked me to repeat it and I did, he later handed me a Durum.No problem I like those too.
11:06 January 2, 2013 by Anny One again
Hey raandy

In other words,if you would went to a Turkish beauty surgeon to let you remove your varicose veins,

you would have no problem waking up with two silicone pillow under your chest.

Your modesty honors you. you like those too ! Hm?
14:44 January 2, 2013 by michael4096
On the idea that English speakers are more forgiving of bad English than Germans of bad German...

Which English? American, British, Indian, Glaswegian...? English speakers are bombarded with weird English every day from other English speakers! Little surprise that they are naturally very tolerant with German 'mistakes', they have lots of practice.

I notice that 'tolerance' is lowest when there are fewest speakers of a language. They get no practice at hearing bad pronunciation. For example, in the Netherlands, Afrikaans in movies is subtitled even though it's almost exactly the same as the Dutch.

German 'intolerance' has more to do with the decline of the language than the attitude of its practitioners.
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