Madeleine & the English enigma

Much has been made of the issue of people within the Ocean Club or within the Portuguese judicial authorities not speaking English. This is important, particularly with respect to the first two hours after Kate McCann discovered Madeleine was missing.

Did Ocean Club receptionist Helder Luis not understand Matthew Oldfield when he said a near-four-year-old child was missing and requested that the police should be brought in?

Did the first GNR officers to respond and who arrived as the first at the Ocean Club struggle with a language barrier?

Was Silvia Batista required as an interpreter in the first few hours?

The issue of whether interpreters were required later, when statements were being taken from witnesses who did not speak Portuguese, is not relevant. The law requires that such witnesses are afforded a translator.

So, in the period from 10pm on 3 May 2007 to midnight, how much of an obstacle was the language barrier in the Madeleine McCann incident?

We now need to turn to Portimão hospital, and the fact that my daughter is due to give birth shortly. A few days ago, she had what felt like early warning signs, so she was rushed from Luz to the hospital. And there she suffered.

No one appeared to speak English. At one point, in considerable pain, she pressed the call buzzer. A nurse duly arrived. My daughter asked if the nurse spoke English. The nurse replied that she did not, turned around, and walked out. If you are wondering whether the nurse went to get someone who spoke English, she did not. No one else came, and my daughter was simply left there.

There is more to that episode but perhaps we should fast-forward a couple of days. My daughter is now out of the hospital, is feeling a bit better, and was taken to Lagos to get her nails done. The Portuguese people running the salon speak excellent English, including jokes in English and four letter expletives. They are curious as to why my daughter has a bruise the size of a side plate on her left arm. That is the bit I cut out of the Portimão hospital story earlier on.

The tale of the visit to hospital was told by my daughter, and the salon people were livid. They explain first that this is not xenophobia, that all people get treated badly alike, and that everyone in Portimão hospital speaks English.

How can this be true?

For decades, it has been mandatory within Portugal that children in their first 8 years of school are taught English. Anyone under 60 would have been subject to this requirement.

After those 8 years, it is still mandatory that Portuguese schoolchildren learn a language, but it does not have to be English. The nail salon staff pointed out a pertinent fact. After spending 8 years learning English, not many schoolchildren then swap to a different language.

Let me dump in 3 possibilities.

First, the state schools, the ones that the general Portuguese public go to, are not highly rated here, quite the opposite. I do not know how true or otherwise this view is. However, a possibility exists that despite 8 years of teaching when kids are best at learning, little English went in.

Second, it is possible that no matter how good the education, the people involved in the Madeleine response were simply not good at learning languages.

Third, it is possible that despite learning Portuguese, the responders had little chance to practice it. This is by far the weakest suggestion. Those people who had risen through the ranks so that they were not front-line, whether in the Ocean Club or the GNR or the PJ, might get away with this, on the grounds that they conducted most talks with their staff in Portuguese i.e. their English was rusty.

However, there is no point in having a person working 24hr reception in the Ocean Club, a resort dominated by English tourists, if the receptionist could not speak English.

Equally, given the number of English tourists on the Algarve, and the number of incidents involving English speakers that GNR officers have to attend, it is difficult to comprehend that there was a major language barrier. Interpreter Silvia Batista was quite possibly a bonus, rather than a necessity.

Let’s return to the tale of Portimão hospital and the view of the staff in the nail salon.

One lady in the salon said she worked in the bombeiros. These are the people who provide fire-fighting services in Portugal, and also the ambulance service. Her role is to accompany the ambulance crew, as she speaks sufficiently good English to handle translation of medical terms.

Another person pointed out that 8 years of English is not good enough to qualify you as a nurse in Portugal. When a student nurse goes to university, it is mandatory to undertake further English. I do not know for certain why this is the case, but the obvious answer is that nurses need to be able to ask about and understand medical terms in English.

Just to wrap up, the English word ‘abduction’ translates as ‘abdução’ in Portuguese. My nearest phonetics would be – ab-douche-ow. Bear in mind that the standard way of translating a word ending in -tion in English is to replace it with -çao in Portuguese, and that this is so simple it would have been taught in school during those 8 years of English.

If anyone was stressing abduction in the earliest hours, it should have got through to the receptionist and it should have got through to the GNR officers, with or without a translator.

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