How Can the Medical Field Tap Into the Heritage Languages of Doctors?

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 17, 2009 1 min read
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Nearly 60 percent of 1st- and 2nd-year medical students at Canada’s University of British Columbia speak at least one language other than English at a moderate or advanced level, but many still say they don’t feel proficient enough to use it with patients, according to a study published in the BC Medical Journal. The Vancouver Sun reported on the study yesterday (which I picked up from the TESOL in the News Blog). The authors of the study write:

It is likely that students lack the basic medical terminology/vocabulary in their non-English languages and, as such, feel unqualified to communicate effectively with their patients. This suggests that students who are fluent in a language may not feel fluent in a medical setting and may need additional training in order to effectively use their language skills.

The study found that 27 percent of the 1st-year class and 31 percent of the 2nd-year class have a language other than English as their first language. Those languages, which can also be called “heritage languages,” include Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese, Farsi, and Punjabi.

Most students in the study said they would attend workshops aimed at improving language and cross-cultural skills.

Here’s another statement from the authors of the study:

Language is an often overlooked capacity that has the potential to bridge the cultural gap and enhance the doctor-patient relationship. Identifying and encouraging the development of language skills in medical students might be the key to fostering more culturally competent physicians.

The Canadian study may signal a trend that professionals are increasingly recognizing that institutions (including schools) can play a role in supporting children from immigrant families to develop and use their home languages for the good of society. The last example of this that I reported on was how a task force appointed by the Maryland legislature produced a report that tells how government and business can better tap into the heritage language skills of residents of that state.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.