A characteristic of a good doctor is the ability to communicate effectively. As the American population diversifies, future generations of …
A characteristic of a good doctor is the ability to communicate effectively. As the American population becomes more diverse, future generations of physicians are likely to encounter even more patients who do not speak English or who are more comfortable communicating in another language.
Having doctors fluent in different languages will be invaluable in overcoming communication barriers and ensuring patients receive the highest quality care. This is particularly important for commonly spoken languages like Spanish, but also for less commonly spoken languages which may predominate in some communities.
When I was doing my ophthalmology internship at the medical faculty of an affiliated hospital, I was struck by the number of Armenian-speaking patients who visited the clinic.
However, speaking another language and honing foreign language skills can provide additional value beyond just communicating with the patient. With medical schools placing more emphasis on knowledge of the humanities in recent years, showing that you are bilingual or multilingual can help set you apart from the crowded pool of applicants. It also shows medical schools that you have a well-rounded education that goes beyond science lessons and provides you with a different framework for approaching problems.
Perfect your language skills as a premed
If you speak another language but are not fluent in it, take advantage of your time as a premed to hone these skills. Consider taking elective courses in this language at university or joining conversation groups to improve your understanding of this language.
[READ: How Premed Students Can Combine Passion for the Arts and Medicine.]
It might sound like a lot to add language learning to an already busy premedical schedule, but it can be done on a leisurely basis and doesn’t need to occupy a lot of time. Chat groups, for example, can be a great way to socialize and make new friends when you want to take a break from studying organic chemistry or physics. Listening to audio lessons during your commute or during a workout can also be a great way to familiarize yourself with a new language and practice this skill.
You will be surprised at how much this knowledge can help you when you are in your clinical placements as a medical student.
In fact, in the ophthalmology internship where we had a large Armenian speaking population, a classmate of mine who spoke Armenian fluently played a vital role in the clinic. He often served as an interpreter, helping to communicate with patients and reducing their concerns. As the rest of us just stood there and watched, he was very involved. His knowledge of the language helped improve patient care and earned him points with attending physicians.
Improving one’s foreign language skills or even learning a new language for the first time as a pre-medical student can have another benefit. There are many parallels between learning a new language and learning medicine.
In fact, in some ways, medicine is like a foreign language with its own distinct terminology. A student learning French or Mandarin can spend hours learning new vocabulary and different verb tenses. Medical students spend their first two years learning the names of diseases and drugs, understanding pathophysiology and pharmacology. In either case, it is only after repeated exposure to these concepts that they can be used in practical contexts.
The language learner can venture out and start applying what he has learned by communicating in the language after sufficient practice. Likewise, medical students begin to apply their knowledge of medicine and its lingo in clinical placements and develop clinical acumen during their residency.
[Read: How Medical School Applicants Can Stand Out Without a Premed Major.]
Those who spent time learning a new language before starting medical school will find that the framework they used to learn a new language can also be applied to learning medicine.
Use your knowledge of foreign languages to gain clinical experience
If you speak another language, take advantage of this skill to find clinical opportunities in healthcare. Some hospitals and health facilities may be willing to hire people who know another language to work as interpreters. You can also consider traveling to another country where the language is spoken.
For example, those who speak Spanish can partner with organizations working in Central America or South America to support healthcare projects in those countries, or travel to those countries to learn more about their healthcare system while by learning about medicine. These types of experiences will make great stories in your medical school application essays and interviews.
Use your knowledge of the language to learn more about the culture
Language is not only important for communication, it can serve as a window into a new culture.
If you speak another language, use it to your advantage to learn more about the culture of the people who speak that language. As noted above, you can do this by traveling to another country or immersing yourself in a local community where this language is spoken.
You can also consider joining a college club dedicated to promoting a certain culture. For example, if you aspire to learn Vietnamese, you can find a Vietnamese student association on your college campus. Another great way to use your knowledge of another language to experience a different culture is to interact with patients in a clinical setting.
[Read: How to Select the Right Minor as a Premed Student.]
Recognize that by immersing yourself in a different culture, you will not understand all its nuances. Also, don’t assume from interactions with a limited number of people that you can apply what you’ve learned about their culture to every person who speaks that language.
Your goal should be to use your language skills to connect with people from different backgrounds, to listen with an open mind to learn about their views and preferences, and to gain an appreciation for similarities and differences. that may exist between different cultures.
If you are able to do this in a clinical setting, it can give you unique insight into how culture can affect an individual’s views on medical care. Either way, this exhibit will allow you to understand and embrace the many different perspectives that your future patients may take.
Many premedicine students underestimate the value that knowing another language can bring to their application to medical school. In particular, if you have made an effort to hone your language skills in college or applied that knowledge to connect with patients and learn more about their culture, take advantage of your applications to highlight those experiences, consider how they have contributed to your growth and show how they will allow you to make something unique as an incoming student.
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Tips for premedicine students who speak more than one language originally appeared on usnews.com