August 4, 2013, by Kate

When a pharmacy degree isn’t enough


“Hello, can I help you?”

It’s a standard phrase we often use in community pharmacy to greet our customers. However in one particular inner city location these words were answered with a blank look, and I was left not knowing how on earth I should proceed.

I soon discovered the area I was in had a particularly high population of South Asian people who could not speak English. However, the pharmacist I was working with was able to speak Gujarati, and the dispenser Punjabi, so most of the public in that area could communicate with one of the other members of staff. When I referred the customer to the other staff however, I felt completely useless. At this point I started to wonder if my GSCE level French would ever be useful.

After doing a quick bit of research on the ever-helpful internet, I discovered that 95% of the British population are monolingual English speakers1 (including myself – I suppose a GCSE doesn’t come close to fluency), and Polish is now  England’s second language2.

Perhaps we poms should start making a bit more effort to learn a second language, not just because it looks good on our CVs but because one day we might actually be able to help someone out, whether that be pointing out the way to the nearest bus stop, or explaining that flucloxacillin should be taken four times a day on an empty stomach.

Our schools’ standard GCSE and A level languages are, in my experience, French, German and Spanish, but how often do we come across a French person working in England who cannot speak English? More often than not they are completely fluent; however there are many Polish or South Asian people in our communities that have moved to England with their families and struggle with basic English.

My suggestion to the powers that be in the School system would be to introduce languages that are spoken most often by non-English speaking people. I personally would welcome a bit of language education that would enable me to greet my customers in a pharmacy and have a basic conversation to help them to feel at ease and welcome. Ideally we could even explain how many spoonfuls of Calpol to give their child when they feel unwell, without resorting to counting on our fingers.

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