Yesterday I had the side of my head pressed up against an Iranian immigrant.
He was taking out my wisdom tooth. It was pretty routine as far as tooth extractions go – one swift yank and we were done. What was not routine was that the dentist coming at me with a periodontal probe didn’t have the best English. This made me very, very nervous.
What if he took out the wrong tooth? I’m sure he knows the words for “right” and “left” in Farsi and Norwegian, but what if in English – his third language – he occassionally got confused? Grasping the vocabulary and grammar of three languages is a tall order, and on top of that he’s a dental surgeon, so there’s even more crammed into his brain. So much so that knowing “right” from “left” in English might just fall out of his head.
I convinced myself of this. I started making frantic gestures with my left hand to my left cheek and to the left side of the X-ray I had brought with me.
I’ve had plenty of practice communicating with people with whom I don’t share the same mother tongue. My parents, for one thing. Not to mention most of the friends I’ve made since I came to Norway.
Sometimes speaking the same language isn’t enough. When I first moved to London I headed to the hairdresser to get 6 inches of hair chopped off and I ended up with a stylist who was from Newcastle in northern England. As soon as I walked in she said “set reet doon therr roond the tehble.” That ain’t English! (What she meant was “sit right down there around the table.”)
But that time a language barrier mishap would have grown back. Incisors don’t do that. Yet here I was in Norway at a dentists office where a man with broken English was aiming for my gums with a very long needle.
He mumbled a few words and then I heard him say “swallow.” Did he say that I should or shouldn’t swallow? I looked at him wildly but I didn’t want to ask too many questions and annoy him.
The procedure went just fine. Competent dentist that he was, it was obvious to him that it was indeed the wisdom tooth on my left that needed to go. I calmed myself down, let him push my head into his side to get a good grip of my tooth, and it was over.
The experience was a lesson for me. Having lived in the US and Britain I take for granted that English is the western world’s Lingua franca, but for many people its not even a close second. Despite that, the world keeps turning.
After my tooth was removed the dentist gave me a prescription to calm my nerves. I think I came off as the nervous type and he figured I’d be better off sedated for a couple of days. I think I’ll save those pills in case I have to go to the gynecologist.