If you’ve been paying attention to the political landscape in the U.S. then you’ve probably seen the little phrase “Obamacare” come up too many times to count. Before you get nervous, this is NOT a political post. I repeat – this is NOT a political post. 🙂 However, something has happened in the midst of all of this that reminded us once again of the power of language.

The new healthcare law takes effect January 1, 2014. Throughout the process, President Obama said one little sentence that has gotten him into a whole lot of trouble. He simply stated, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.” As we have seen since this statement, circumstances quickly unfolded that proved this to be false. Due to circumstances that are beyond the scope of this blog, millions of Americans have had insurance policies cancelled that they liked and wanted to keep. This blog post is not about whether the President knew this was going to happen. What concerns me is the power that one little sentence has had in completely shaking an industry and a nation.

Leadership Language

Image source: www.trainingzone.co.uk

When someone is learning a language, you are encouraged to use it as much as possible. We often tell you, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – that’s how you learn!” But in the back of our minds we are often afraid of a slip of the tongue that if said the wrong way to the wrong person could have devastating (or comical) consequences. Conversely, we can misunderstand someone else in the process of translation and relay completely false information. Let’s use a real-life example.

In 1980 a man named Willie Ramirez was admitted to a hospital in Florida. Willie’s family only spoke Spanish and told the hospital translator that Willie was “intoxicado“. The translator took them to incorrectly mean intoxicated from alcohol or drugs. The actual meaning of the word is more closely related to being poisoned. Willie’s family was trying to convey that they thought he was suffering from food poisoning. The doctors treated him for drug overdose, completely overlooking the hemorrhaging in his brain. The miscommunication and thus wrong path of treatment resulted in a quadriplegic life for Willie and a $71 million settlement for he and his family.

The purpose of this information is not to scare you but it is to remind us of the power of language to move mountains, both positive and negative. As you communicate in a foreign language be quick to ask questions that help clarify meaning. It is important that we seek to understand more than we seek to appear like a master of the language. Especially if you are called upon to translate, it is vital that you are confident in the accuracy of your translation.

Not all language misunderstandings are serious. I had one friend who unknowingly answered yes to a marriage proposal and had to spend the rest of her time abroad fighting off an unwanted suitor! Whatever the case may be, try your best to know what is being said, what you are saying, and what you are agreeing or not agreeing to do!

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