How I coped during French hospital stay with imperfect language skills

A one week stay at a hospital following an operation proved to be the perfect setting for columnist Nick Inman to improve his French vocabulary and conversational skills 

A hospital stay pointed the way to learning more French
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Until September last year I knew it could and would never happen to me. Then it did. 

I sat across the desk from my specialist and he told me the result of my biopsy. I needed an operation which would mean spending a full week in hospital. The only reprieve he would allow me was to do it after Christmas, first thing in the New Year. 

I spent three months dreading the operation. All my foreboding was focused on what would happen in the operating theatre: would it go well? would I be in agony? Would I even wake up from the anaesthetic? 

When the porter wheeled me back to my room in intensive care – which had the best view in France of the central Pyrenees – and I tried to speak to him, I realised I had not thought at all about my real problem. How was I going to communicate with my carers during the next seven long days?

The nurses and ancillary staff who fussed around me were without exception brilliant at their work and compassionate in the extreme, but none spoke a word of English – and why should they?

Read more: Why you may be struggling with French - and what you can do about it

Casual French

I was fairly competent in casual, conversational French – the sort of chat that is fun and does not really matter – but this was not required here. I needed earnest, functional stuff. I was going to have to communicate on the most basic level. 

To begin with, I was bedridden, helpless and dosed up on painkillers; and not in any state for self-study French lessons. The first night I was in another morphine universe and all I could do was let the nurse on duty go through her routines.

The next morning, however, I realised I had both a need and an opportunity. Whether I had wanted it or not, I was in an intensive residential French course and it would be sensible and useful to make the most of it.

I understood I would have a much easier time of it, and recover quickly, if I brought my French up to co-operative patient level so that I could help the nurses to help me. For that, I realised, I would have to develop a method. 

 Read more:  Learning French: Understand the different words for ‘take’ and ‘bring’

Firstly, I used my phone to look up any basic words I should have known anyway. How do you say ‘porter’ in French? What about ‘saline drip’? 


Secondly, I listened very carefully to the words the staff used, which often were not the ones an online translator would offer. When giving me a bed bath or helping me, naked, into the shower, for example, they taught me synonyms of intimate body parts that I had never needed to name in French. This was also good for my pronunciation. I had plenty of time on my hands to repeat, parrot fashion, the words and phrases I was hearing.

Thirdly, I asked a lot of questions. They did not mind at all; in fact they welcomed it. It brightened their day and it made it much easier for all of us. They were so professional that they took their role as teachers as seriously as that of medical practitioners. Often, they were proud to explain the procedures they were carrying out.

Fourthly, I kept a diary in which I wrote down all the unfamiliar medical words I might otherwise quickly forget. 

I found it a great help to be humble, polite and not waste their time. Most of them were more than willing to talk, not only about medical matters but also to exchange information about lives outside the hospital. That also helped me to see them as human beings beyond their uniforms, and that was good for me.

By day three, when I was moved from my Pyrenean room to one with a view over the rear car park, I not only knew a lot more French than when I had arrived, but I also knew how to break the ice and initiate conversations.

English accent

Often my English accent was enough. The doctor who was giving me a scan to see if I was ready to be discharged, spontaneously launched into a eulogy on British medical scientists. By the end of our session we were the best of friends, discussing the respective reputations of Wellington and Napoleon. 

The week went much more quickly than I had expected, because I talked and listened so much. Improving my French gave me a project on which to concentrate my mind. If I had not made an effort, I know I would have felt lonely and isolated. 

If you have a hospital stay coming, may I suggest that as well as your physical and psychological preparation, you anticipate the lexical challenges ahead and make yourself a crib sheet. To get you started, I have drawn up a short list. 

When I walked out of the hospital wing that had been my home for seven days, I left a handwritten thank you note for the staff in heartfelt English. In return, they taught me a final French phrase. Ironically for such polite people, they said: Nous ne vous disons pas ‘au revoir’. This unpacks as: “We’re not going to say ‘see you soon’ because we don't want to see you back here.”

Useful words and phrases for a stay in hospital

What you may want to say to them

I need to go to the toilet J'ai besoin d'aller aux toilettes

I have a pain... J'ai mal…

Can I drink some water ? J’ai soif

I would like to take a shower Je voudrais prendre une douche

When is the doctor coming? Quand le médecin viendra-t-il?

Can you change my …? Pouvez-vous me changer le/la…

What they may say to you

Je vais vous faire une piqûre I’m going to give you an injection

Vous devez être à jeun… You must have an empty stomach (not have eaten for x hours)

Est ce que vous avez mal quelque part? Are you in pain anywhere?

Avez-vous été à la selle ? Have you had a bowel movement

Avez vous déjà pété? Have you farted yet? (an important medical indicator!)

Useful words

Anaesthetist Anesthésiste

Operating theatre Bloc opératoire

Blood pressure Tension

Blood test Prise de sang

Dizziness Vertige

Fever Fièvre ou température

Hospital gown Blouse/chemise d’hôpital

Hospital Porter Brancardier

Intensive care Soins intensifs/ soins continus

Intravenous Drip Perfusion

Nurse Infirmière (female) or infirmier (male)

Nursing assistant or auxiliary Aide-soignante

Pain killer Analgésique

Radiography Radiographie

Recovery room Salle de réveil

Restricted diet Régime Spécial

Catheter (or probe) Sonde

Trainee, typically a nurse learning practical skills Stagiaire

Staple (an alternative to stitches) Agrafe chirurgicale

Stitch (to close wound) Point de suture

Support, surgical or compression stocking Bas de contention

Surgeon chirurgien (male), chirurgienne (female) 

For further information:

Vocabulaire anglais infirmier by Anne-Laure Guin Elsevier Masson 2nd edition 2021