I have been on the other side of this issue--the patient who didn't speak the local language. I lived in Istanbul for three years with my Turkish husband and our son was born there two years ago. We had been planning a homebirth, but after 80 hours of labor, it was obvious that we were heading for a c-section. I was at a very nice private hospital, affiliated with Harvard Medical Center, and most of the staff was non-English speaking. My Turkish is elementary at best, I can bargain at the market and order at restaurants, have a basic pleased-to-meet-you conversation, but when it comes to medical situations, I'm just not at that level. Plus with the stress of 80 hours of labor, not having had any sleep or anything to eat for three days, my comprehension was miniscule at best. My husband is not the world's most reliable translator, but did his best. I had every intention of learning to speak Turkish when I arrived, but I'm here to tell you that language acquisition doesn't come so easily after 35.
I was very fortunate that I am a nurse with L&D/Post-partum experience. I knew what was going to happen and was able to make my requests ahead of time. Still, I had issues with the nurses wanting to take my baby from me for routine care, wanting to keep him clothed in the isolette rather than naked and skin-to-skin. When my husband went home in the evenings (he was taking care of our then-13-year-old, our puppy, and his mother), I was left at the mercy of the staff. I was able to say that I was hungry, yet not understand their rationale for not bringing me anything to eat (they deny food 24hrs post-op!). Someone finally found an office-type person who had some limited English, and between her limited English and my limited Turkish, we limped through a 20-minute conversation that would've taken seconds had we understood one another. I was so overjoyed to have someone I could speak to and understand that it didn't matter. (And then had DH on the phone immediately to the doc to get me some food ordered!)
My point to this long story--don't assume that the person who doesn't speak English well has not tried to learn. It's not easy to learn another language as an adult and many people (myself included) would rather not speak than to say what we do know and have it come out wrong. And if you speak the other person's language, however little, please don't be afraid to use it! You have no idea the effect that hearing your native language has on someone who is scared, frustrated, angry, and humiliated.
It would behoove America to introduce multiple languages in schools
much earlier than high school. Almost everyone that I've met living abroad speaks at least two languages, usually more. Being bi- and tri-lingual is the norm outside of North America. We have to stop thinking that the American way is the only way and figure out that we can learn from the rest of the world. But that's another rant altogether.