Willingness to learn a few foreign phrases is helping a PCT get closer to its minority communities. Lynne Greenwood reports

When Sheffield primary care trust chief executive Jan Sobieraj meets members of the city's south Asian communities, he is able to greet them with an Urdu phrase for "Hello" or "Peace be with you": "Asalaam Alaikum".

The greeting is the first phrase in a handy guide entitled Learn Six Phrases of Urdu in 30 Minutes, compiled by Don Buxton, the PCT's Yorkshire-born patient advice and liaison/patient and public involvement manager, whose previous foray into language lessons was school French.

Mr Buxton, a former emergency medical despatcher and community trainer with the South Yorkshire Ambulance Service, decided to learn the basics of Urdu to help him to make links with the Muslim community in the city.

Now his quick guide is available to all staff at Sheffield PCT including the chief executive, who says he always carries the guide with him.

"Don's personal initiative and expertise have helped us to make links with a community whose cultural needs we want to understand," says Mr Sobieraj.

"But this is not just about language. It has to be seen in the context of our aim to ensure that seldom-heard people and communities, who include ethnic groups, find it easy to engage with the trust."

Mr Buxton decided to learn the basics of Urdu when he realised that the ambulance service had not received one request from the Asian community for its community cardiopulmonary resuscitation training three months after the service was launched.

"I could not change my cultural background but wondered if it would help if I could at least communicate in Urdu," he explains.

He joined an informal weekly lunchtime session, run by teacher Baserah Khan, now co-ordinator of English as an additional language at a Rotherham school, before enrolling on an Open College Network "conversational Urdu" evening course.

Although he is adamant he is "nowhere near fluent", he can carry on a conversation in Urdu, often to the surprise of members of the minority ethnic community.

"I remember once at the end of a resuscitation training course for youngsters, I offered a pencil to a little girl whose older brother had attended," he says. "I said 'hello' in Urdu and asked her name. The phrase is 'Aap ka naam kia hai?'

"She looked absolutely gobsmacked at this white, middle-aged man speaking her language. She said: 'Hey mum, he speaks like us'."

Better links

As well as learning the language, Mr Buxton developed close links with the community, initially through his friendship with Mr Khan. He was invited to meet young people attending the madrassar school at a Sheffield mosque, where the imam presented him with traditional garments: an embroidered topi - headwear - and a salwar kameez outfit.

"It opened up a whole new world for me and I soon realised that news of my speaking Urdu was getting around," says Mr Buxton, who began receiving invitations to both local and national events.

He was invited to give a presentation at an event on community engagement organised by the Pacesetters programme - a partnership between local communities with health inequalities, the NHS and the Department of Health - in London in January.

Mr Buxton was chosen "because he epitomises the very style of engagement Pacesetters is keen to engender on their programme", said the organisers.

"Don's story of learning simple phrases in Urdu was used as a classic example of how a few simple steps to understand the history or culture of a minority group can reap benefits for the group, and for the NHS as a whole."

A month later he represented the trust at a presentation ceremony at the Pakistan Muslim Centre in Sheffield with community leaders trained by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the non-governmental organisation which supported a social inclusion and community cohesion programme set up in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London.

"There were groups of white people sitting together and groups of Asian men together," he says. "One of the Asian guys greeted me first so I plonked myself down with them and ate with them.

"During the evening, one man I knew asked if I could help a friend of his, in my PALS role, and I was able to do so."

At a recent patient advice and liaison presentation to a women's group which included 12 Asians, his language skills prompted someone to ask whether he was from Pakistan or Patan, the ancient Indian city just south of Kathmandu. "I was very flattered but had to tell her I was a Yorkshire boy," he says.

More importantly, he says, within a week of the presentation, PALS received five calls from Asian women on a range of issues, including difficulties in booking a GP.

Building trust

He believes his willingness to learn the basics of Urdu - which is understood by many who speak other Asian languages - has helped him establish trust within the community.

"I don't think I would have made the contacts and the friendships without the language," he says. "I would still be at arm's length and not able to inform them that our services are there for everybody and that PALS and PPI can help them."

Irshad Akbar, the former chief executive of Sheffield's Pakistan Muslim Centre and a governor of Sheffield Care trust, agrees.

"As soon as Don starts to speak in Urdu, he captures the attention of the community," he says. "In the past, many people in the Asian community were reluctant to access mainstream services, which appeared to be regimented and difficult to reach. Don has taken the time to learn some language which has helped to break down barriers. People now trust him, see him as a friend. Through him they have learned about PALS."

Jan Sobieraj concludes: "There's no doubt Don's 'six phrases' have been a real enabler. He has developed an empathy with a community for whom English is not their first language, giving them confidence to access our services. We now want to build on his personal initiative."

Don Buxton's guide to six phrases in Urdu

  • Greeting someone: Asalaam Alaikum (Peace be with you, or Hello)

  • Responding to the greeting: Waalaikum Salaam (Peace be with you, or Hello)

  • Telling someone your name: Mera naam DON hai (My name is DON)

  • Asking someone their name: Aap ka naam kia hai? (What is your name?)

  • Thanking someone: Bahot shukria (Thank you very much)

  • Saying goodbye: Khuda Hafiz (God be with you)