My name is Peter Cawston and I'm a medical doctor who works in a housing estate with a lot of social and economic problems.
My work as a GP involves working with a small team providing medical care to people of all ages who have a wide range of physical and mental health problems. Often these are long term problems and much of the care I provide is over many years.
Which languages do you know and how did you learn them?
I speak fluent French and Spanish. I learnt French at secondary school and I learnt Spanish as a child because I was brought up in a Spanish speaking country.
What role has language learning played in your career?
Languages have been very important in enriching my career and broadening my perspectives. Although they are not essential to the work I do, as a student languages enabled me to get summer jobs in Switzerland (French), Puerto Rico and Peru (Spanish). I was able to travel and live with people who did not speak English, feeling less of a tourist and more part of everyday life. I could go to concerts, listen to music, read books, become involved in conversations and discover new ways of thinking about the world. This completely changed my perspective on what my career was about, making me realise the part that politics and social conditions play in health, eventually affecting my choice of what kind of medicine I wanted to practice.
After I graduated I moved to France where I worked for two years in HIV medicine and Psychiatry. Not only was this fun, challenging and interesting but my fluency in languages was one factor that gave me a competitive edge when I came back to the UK and applied for an academic fellowship. This in turn opened new doors for me as a GP, so that I have been able to have a portfolio career of academic and political work in parallel to my day to day GP work.
How do you use your language skills in your working life?
Within my daily medical work I still use languages, especially French as we are an asylum seeking practice and I consult with French speaking patients in their own language on a fairly regular basis. I have also been able to attend academic conferences in Spain and Cuba. In Cuba, I was able to converse with other doctors, learn about their health care system, give an academic presentation in Spanish and even meet the Cuban health minister! I was also able to have a career break and spend two months in Peru.
What would you say is your underlying drive to continue using and improving your languages?
I believe that speaking a second or third language allows you to open your mind and see the world through different eyes. I think differently in French, and differently again in Spanish. My personality changes a little and the world seems bigger and more interesting. When I watch a film in French, or listen to music in Spanish I can connect differently than I would in English. I think when you move from life in one language to life in several languages, it’s like going from black and white films to colour. You can get by in monochrome, but life is so much more interesting and rich in colour. I also love travelling, and it is a very different feeling to be able to speak to people and ask for things in their language, than always feeling like you're a foreign tourist who couldn't be bothered to make the effort.
Do you have any tips/advice for young people in our schools?
Learning another language is not difficult but you do need to be prepared to feel stupid and make mistakes. I think people say it is difficult because they don't like to feel like that. Sometimes, I have felt so tongue tied and embarrassed because I couldn't say what I wanted to or couldn't quite understand what was being said - my pride didn't like that! Even though I learnt Spanish the easy way as a child, I had to learn French from the beginning, but I am so glad that I did, and every time I felt a bit stupid has been more than worth it. So, go for it!
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