Friday, July 18, 2008

Nosebleeding in English

Yes, I have been raised bilingual. Yes, I have been instructed in English since I've been old enough to read. Yes, I have used it in academic discussion for just as long and everyday conversation for even longer. And, yes, I probably read and write better with it, maybe even express myself with it, than I do with my native tongue - and I have a body of work, a thriving blog, and academic IELTS scores to prove it.

But my first month abroad is quickly teaching me that despite my background, I am, as someone who uses English as a second language in an English-speaking land, still prone to frequent "nosebleed*" moments.

Despite having fair command language, I often find myself suddenly bereft of words to express certain thoughts or questions quite unexpectedly. I find myself stopping at mid-sentence when I would frantically grab for an English word in my otherwise good vocabulary only to find Filipino words floating to the surface instead. At times, when my mouth is running faster than my brain, the occasional Tagalog integrates itself into my stream of thought, only to be met by puzzled glances.

In fairness to me, I've been complimented quite often at how fluent I am in English relative to how long I've actually been living here. My English has been good enough to get me through the basics of day-to-day interaction - asking for directions, following instructions, striking up conversations with complete strangers at bus stops (yes, this actually happens quite often in Australia). This country has become such a multi-cultural place that Aussies take my occasional grammar and pronunciation flubs in stride - and are often way more forgiving than many people are back home would be if they heard me.

But the biggest adjustment so far has been in my interaction with the patients I see at work - something other overseas-trained doctors who work in English-speaking countries probably grapple with as well. Although I was taught medicine in English and my conceptual understanding of medical knowledge is in English, I have gotten used to conducting interviews and asking questions in a way that would be better understood by the patients I used to see back home. All of a sudden the metaphors and the analogies that have served me well for so long no longer work. Explanations of common conditions I've used for years quite effectively must now be reworked for my English-speaking audience. New subtleties and nuances have to be relearned.

I don't think that makes me a worse doctor than I used to be. It just means that, for now, I have to make more of an effort to be understood and to understand. Knowing that I have to keep on my toes works in my favor, and it's that effort that I put in that closes the gap. It's slow going, but I like to believe I'm getting there and getting better every day I come into work, every patient that I interview. It's all just part of the growing pains of practicing medicine in a foreign country.

Nonetheless, no matter how fluent I get at speaking English, I know the nosebleed moments will probably remain a fact of life. And while I may have no real, formal knowledge of Filipino and my actual Tagalog vocabulary is shallow at best, not speaking it for long spells has made me realize that a heart-deep connection with it exists - and I miss using it, in a major way.

(*For people not in the know, the term "nosebleed" is Filipino slang for something exceedingly difficult or takes so much effort that it makes your nose bleed. It is often used in the context of someone trying to conduct a conversation in straight English and struggling mightily with it. I don't know how widespread the term's use it and how accepted is the term's use is in this context - so please free to correct me by posting a comment if I am wrong. :))


Em Dy said...

I love how your avatar reflects the content of your post. I'm sure the "epistaxis" would soon be a thing of the past or at least an infrequent occurrence.

GraceMags said...

hahaha. i think it's because sa labas iba ang tono nila when they speak in english. ako i am very afraid of getting thrown "out there."

i have a brother though na three years na sa labas. pag balik niya ang galing pa rinmag speak in dialect pero pag nag english din para nang taga labas. sa tingin ko you will eventually be able to adjust.


dr_clairebear said...

@em: i hope so! on the other hand, i better lose the accent i acquire when i get back home or my friend will never let me hear the end of it!

@grace: thanks! pinoys in general have the talent of pickingup the lingo wherever they are, i think, something that can work both ways. we'll see how it goes in a few months! :P

Manggy said...

Heyyy! G'day, mate! It won't be long till you'll be having shrimp on the baaaahbie with the rest of 'em, cobber!
Er... Anyway, I never thought about all the various metaphors and cultural references we used in our interviews. You're moving at the speed of light-- it'll be no time before your nasal mucosa is clear :) Meanwhile, feel free to fully immerse yourself in the culture-- never mind what they'll say back here at home. That's just jealousy :P
I love that random people strike up conversations. Here back at home we've become so wary about crime that our famed "hospitality" is now only reserved for foreigners. Such a shame.

Anonymous said...

hi dr claire. i've worked with aussies for 5 years and one thing that drove me insane was their idioms! it's totally different from american english idioms. i've had this "huh" look on my face whenever i couldn't understand them.

Panaderos said...

14 years in the US and I still have such "nosebleed" moments. But they happen when I'm physically tired and thus, my mind's tired too.

But I'm glad to know that you're making strides there adjusting to a new work environment and to a new culture. Unlike in our country, people here in the US and, based now on what you said, Australia talk to strangers. Granted that the conversation may be a bit shallow or superficial, but it still makes one feel good that another person took the time to exchange a few words with us even for just a few moments.

Best of luck and take good care of yourself out there. :)

dr_clairebear said...

@mari: i know what you mean. the best phrase in my vocab bag right now is "i beg your pardon?" because i do have to ask them to repeat what they just said pretty often. it helps having an australian uncle-in-law who i've talked to over the years, so the accent is not quite as hard to comprehend.

@panaderos: nosebleeding language moments may be a by-product of our bilingual heritage - that way the words from other language tend to substitute themselves for one another. (my theory!)

@manggy: the conversations with strangers at bus stops also have a lot to do with the waiting time for a bus. *lol* when you're sitting in a bus stop in the rain and there's 15 miutes before the next bus arrives and you don't dare leave because the next bus comes after an hour... you have to think of something to do to forget the frigging cold.

don't even get me started on my two-hour wait for a taxi cab after a harrowing night shift...

Camille said...

ako sa blog palang nosebleed na. haha.. i can iimagine what you're goin through. i just find it difficult to belieeve that someone who writes well in english like you do still go through those moments. good luck! we're(your readers) just here to keep u company while you are away from home. tc!

Anonymous said...

I consider myself fairly articulate in the English language, having spent some of my early formative schooling in the US.

However, one time, when I was really, really tired from going on a sleepless 24-hour call, I found myself talking to my American co-residents in Tagalog! And they just looked at me so funny, and that's when I realized what I just did, LOL!

In times of stress, you will always fall back to your 'native' language, no matter how well you think you speak English. OK lang yan, they all understand.

Ling Xiaoyu said...

English is and always be our second language!

I enjoyed your blog, it is so honest.

armi d said...

hey, claire! i just saw your pics and read part of your blogs...i'm happy you found your path there. i can relate to the nosebleeding in english part too. and our accent doesn't make it any easier. well, everybody has an accent anyway. hahaha! enjoy your time there...i'll read more of your lovely blogs. take care, clairebear!