Title: How can a doctor communicate when s/he has no shared language with the patient?

I heard a news report about refugees in Greece (on This American Life) about a woman refugee had had heart surgery to correct a hear defect shortly before emigrating from, I think, Syria. The Syrian cardiologist told her not to get pregnant because of her heart condition. But she did get pregnant. She saw a Greek cardiologist, who hesitated to recommend an abortion, because he assumed she would reject the idea out of hand due to her religious practices. There was no interpreter (in person or on the phone) and the doctor tried to communicate with the patient using Google Translate -- this did not go well.

I looked for some communication boards to use in hospitals and found these.

Surely there's something better?


First, the supplementary details tend to encourage answers that are overly-specific to a single case and not generalizable. The general question is, how can two people communicate if they have no language in common: this is not limited to doctors. Second, in this case there are two issues, namely how to communicate, and what are the legal consequences in a medical context. Medicine is a regulated industry with special laws, and a hospital would be held responsible for securing competent medical translation (as in "certified", not just "speaks Arabic"). That would be a distraction from the linguistic question. Third, the link points to an over-broadness underlying the question, because you're mixing cases, one involving the common situation of people speaking distinct languages, and the other (in the link) involving a person who has limited ability to communicate in any language (e.g. due to stroke, mental illness, and other such causes).

Finally, you should have an actual question. "Surely there's something better" isn't a question with an objective answer. Calls for opinion and discussion are off topic for SE.

  • Thanks for responding. In a refugee crisis, they're not worrying about whether the translation is certified or not -- they're really struggling. Also, the patient was mentally competent -- they were just trying to decide whether to do an abortion or not. Can you suggest a better way to present my question? I want to know what has been developed (within or without a medical context) to enable two people who do not share a language to communicate, without the help of an interpreter. I suppose if something exists, it might be similar to communication aids for autism? – aparente001 Jun 28 '17 at 14:48
  • If the question is about emergency situations, limit it accordingly. If you only mean "don't have the same language", get rid of the irrelevant link. In other words, delete most of the factual background, and ask the question in a simple and general way. "No mutual language" situations are crucially distinct from interactions with autism – the method relies on ordinary intelligence and social skills, i.e. saying "pen" when being showed a pen, saying "knife" when presented with a knife. – user6726 Jun 30 '17 at 22:09

Your question sounds like it would fit much better at the new site Interpersonal Skills.

Of course the best answer is going to be: get a translator.

  • Have you seen the communication devices children with, for example, autism, are given in inclusive classrooms, so they can communicate with teachers and peers? Aren't linguists involved in designing such assistive devices? The doctor has a smart phone or a laptop -- but he doesn't seem to be finding software to enable the patient to express herself in a way he will understand. – aparente001 Jun 30 '17 at 2:24

If you are looking for automatic general-purpose autonomous real-time translation, we are still pretty far from anything useful enough to productize for a mass market. There was a EU/Japanese collaboration for a prototype which however seemed to lose focus and direction and which was ultimately cancelled. It may still be useful as a starting point for understanding where we are; or rather, where we were (this was before Google and deep learning; the link is to Wikipedia's brief overview article): Verbmobil (1993-2000). I'm sure there have been further developments in this field over the last 20 years but at least this should give you something to start looking for more recent publications.

Regarding your actual meta question, I feel that this is probably too tangential on one hand (about a specific situation in a specific field completely outside of linguistics) and on the other too broad (too unspecific about the linguistical aspects). Perhaps then a good question would be something along the lines of "state of the art in free-form spontaneus dialogue translation".

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