French Got This Nurse To The Olympics!


Wouldn't it be great if you had a skill that could take you places? I mean really take you places? Not just other countries, I mean, take you to the Olympics? That's what happened when this nurse decided to take up French as a foreign language. Read on to discover how she did it, why she chose French and her tips on becoming fluent.

BGLL: Thank you so much for agreeing to share your story! Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do? What are some of your accomplishments.

Heather: I’m Heather Balenger, I’m from Atlanta and I’m Black and proud! I currently hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), a Bachelor of Arts in French Language and Literature, and Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts. I'm a triple threat and I'm proud of it! By day, I'm a Registered Nurse with a growing specialty in critical care. One of my most notable accomplishments is working in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games for sure! I’m also very proud of working as a nurse educator in the rural areas of Montego Bay, Jamaica. I also love knowing how to answer questions when my family calls about their medications! 

BGLL: Which language is your native language? Which other languages do you know? How do you use them?

Heather: English is my native language and I also know French and Portuguese. I use French to communicate with friends, family, and my lovely patients. I know enough Portuguese to not get lost. 

BGLL: How did you learn the other languages? What is your language learning story for how you got started on each?

Heather: I started learning French in middle school. To be honest, the reason why my boyband crazy middle school self chose French, was because I was told “it's the language of love”   and I thought I could impress any boy with my French skills! From the start, I immediately fell in love with the class and continued it throughout my studies. I completed a French foreign exchange program in high school and it was the first time I visited Paris. Since then, I just can't get enough of that city.

BGLL: Where else has your French taken you?

Heather: In college, I worked with one of my professors researching francophone identity in the more cultural and ethnic areas of Paris. I also lived in île de La Réunion, where I studied French and holistic health. I worked as a nurse in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games translating and caring for French speaking athletes. 

BGLL: Did you learn medical French to be able to take care of the athletes?

Heather: Yes, I started studying medical French when I lived in Réunion Island. I've noticed that my patients feel more at ease when they can speak with someone that understands what they are saying and is able to advocate for them. Their sense of loss is gone and I'm happy I can be there to assist. 

BGLL: Have you dealt with patients who spoke absolutely no English or French? How hard is it to diagnose a patient that speaks a different language?

Heather: I have. It can be quite challenging, assessments might take longer, explaining medications and plans for the day take longer, but it's all a part of the program. Luckily, we have resources, like certified interpreters and medical language apps that can help diagnose patient problems. Just remember to be patient, they are more terrified because they can't understand and being there for them is the least one could do. 

BGLL: Wow that is quite an impressive involvement in the French language. I take it French would be your favorite of the two languages you know?

Heather: Most definitely! I'm also planning to become a medical French interpreter, It’s a goals that I would like to accomplish and I think would definitely highlight my career. I plan to work as a nurse in a francophone country one day and I'm hoping this will lead me to the right step. Although French is my favorite language, I've been having this passion to learn Arabic lately, too. 

BGLL: There are a number of us in the community that love to travel, but never think about doctor visits while vacationing or living abroad. What key vocabulary would you recommend a non-native speaker learn regarding communicating with medical personnel in the event of taking ill abroad? For example, do you recommend being able to at least communicate pain, discomfort, specific body parts, etc. in that language? Existing conditions? Any other specifics?


Heather: I would definitely recommend keeping a little book or a laminated note card that simply explains your existing conditions and any meds you're taking for it. 

If you can't remember how to say pain or how to say the body part, point to it and show a painful face expression. We are trained to assess and recognize pain and discomfort, so normally we can pick up on it, but if not, charades can be helpful in some instances. One thing I always ask my patients is "can you show me with one finger where it hurts the most?" I've found that to be extremely helpful because putting a whole hand over the painful area can sometimes be misleading. 

I always travel with my own mini pharmacy whenever I'm abroad. CVS and Walgreens sell mini pharmacy pouches that you can add anything you want. It comes in handy, especially when I'm traveling abroad with friends and they feel too ill to visit the pharmacy or too scared to communicate their problems. My pouch contains pain and fever medicine, anti-biotic ointments, eye and ear drops, allergy medicine, anti-acid tablets, vitamin c, feminine health medicines, hand sanitizer and of course Band-Aids!

BGLL: As an avid traveler, I often travel with pain and allergy medications myself, but I never considered having a mini pharmacy! You sound like a seasoned traveler.

Heather:  Oh yes, on my off days I love traveling! I even have a second Instagram page, @_thegirlwithcurls, which highlights my most recent travels and places I love to visit! 

BGLL: What are three tips you’d give to someone who wants to learn another language?

Heather: 1. Be patient – it doesn't come overnight! Rome wasn't built in a day!  2. Always be ready to learn – whether it's picking up some common words or using more local tones, be open and just let it flow. You're not always going to understand everything, but if you're able to pick up on the key words and context clues, by my vote, you're a natural! 3. Accent comes with practice - listen to music, watch shows and movies in that language. Repeat repeat repeat. Practice makes permanent, not perfect  Plus I love listening to podcasts, especially Coffee Break French and News in French! 

BGLL: Where can we keep up with you on social?

Heather: You can keep up with me on Instagram. I have two Instagram accounts: @_thegirlwithcurls, which is all about my travels and @nurse.noire which highlights my professional milestones and achievements.

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