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Speaking Together

Speaking Together is a Robert Wood Johnson-funded project to test and disseminate methods for improving how hospitals provide language services. Right now, there are 10 testing sites in acute care hospitals. The program launched late in 2006.

The details will be interesting only to someone interested in health care administration, but the larger point is one that advocates of one society, one language (whether it’s English or Esperanto) should heed: solutions to the problems posed by linguistic diversity don’t have to have a linguistic solution. They can be social solutions as well. In fact, in a situation where someone needs care immediately, there isn’t time for a linguistic solution. So a social solution is the only option.*

Much has been made in the past of Language Line, the telephone-based interpreter service. What’s interesting about Speaking Together is that these sorts of technological solutions don’t appear to be considered. This may reflect how the technology was never really suited for health care contexts, or how hospitals are committed to using local human resources first. Other reasons?

I first became interested in this question in grad school, where I spent a little time looking at the Bread & Roses strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. How did 25,000 striking mill employees organize, given that there were 21 languages (not sure of this number exactly) spoken among them all? Did bilingual/multilingual workers automatically become liaisons to centralized organizing committees? Or were leaders of language/ethnic groups chosen regardless of language ability but accompanied to meetings by interpreter types? What language(s) were meetings conducted in? Was language diversity ever an asset (e.g., meetings couldn’t be surveilled as easily)? Strikers won their demands, if I remember correctly, though the gains were short-lived. I regret not getting into this more deeply, but there’s a sociolinguistic thesis in here for someone who’s less interested in ideology or identity than in operational questions (as I am).

*Linguistic solution = make everyone speak the same language.

Social solution = arrange, exploit, and develop existing human resources, both in individual and organizational terms, either temporarily or permanently