How can learning a language help you create more health impact?

The following is a post by Oana Lupu from PSI’s Learning & Performance team.
PSI’s Learning and Performance team challenged our host country nationals (HCN’s) to an essay contest: describe how learning a particular language can help you create more health impact. Essays started pouring in almost immediately from all over the world, for a chance to win one of 50 Rosetta Stone software licenses. What started as a simple contest turned into something greater: invaluable insights into how language skills can increase health impact.
“Language can either be a barrier or a facilitator to health impact,” commented Jully Chilambwe from Zambia. She cited the example of a Reproductive Health Quality Assurance meeting that included both English and French speakers. “I personally found it very difficult to understand the programs our peers were involved in, despite using an interpreter. The interpretation was disruptive and social interaction was far from being achieved, causing those who did not understand the language to shy away or look like introverts.”
Becoming fluent in English can also open a world of opportunities for staff to develop skills and abilities on their own. Bakoly Rahaivondrafahitra from Madagascar wants to be able to use prestigious academic journals, most of which are in English, as well as internal PSI resources in order to learn more about research methodology.
“Let’s take the example of MSM,” Bakoly says. I could use those resources to learn about how to make focus group participants comfortable talking about very personal things – for example, what keeps them from using a condom? Do they perceive wearing a condom as a sign of lack of virility? Or are they embarrassed to purchase one?”
Researcher Jose Enrique Martinez from the PASMO regional office in Guatemala shares the same view: “If I could better understand the studies that have been conducted in other countries, I could have more impact here in Central America, by replicating methodologies used elsewhere, or making improvements based on lessons learned.”
Language skills also play a vital role in accessing funds for interventions. Njara Rakotonirina, Technical Advisor from Benin, said one of his most important tasks is “building and maintaining relationships with partners and donors: writing proposals, sharing success stories, making presentations and spending time with them in informal settings such as lunches, dinners and events.” Becoming fluent in English would enable him to have more impact in this area.
The majority of contestants view language skills as a means of opening doors and pursuing new opportunities, but the most striking essays are those about how a lack of appropriate language skills can actively limit health impact. One powerful example is that of Ricardo Roman, from Mexico. Over his 7 years at PSI, his hard work and results have been rewarded with promotions – he first moved up to coordinator, then manager and finally associate director.
“This is the highest level I can aspire to within PSI” as of right now, he says. Ricardo wants to lead a recently-approved USAID project, but the project leader must be fluent in English. “My boss promised to consider me, but on the condition that I become bilingual by 2013.”