A hallmark of a good physician is the ability to communicate effectively. As the U.S. population diversifies, future generations of doctors will likely encounter even more patients who do not speak English or who are more comfortable communicating in another language.
Having doctors who are proficient in different languages will be valuable in overcoming barriers to communication and ensuring that patients receive the highest quality of care. This is especially important for commonly spoken languages like Spanish, but also for less commonly spoken languages that may predominate in certain communities.
When I was doing my ophthalmology rotation in medical school at an affiliate 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 patient communication. With med schools placing greater emphasis on knowledge of the humanities in recent years, demonstrating that you are bilingual or multilingual can help distinguish you from the crowded pool of applicants. It also shows med schools that you have a well-rounded education that extends beyond science courses and provides you with a different framework for approaching problems.
Hone Your Language Skills as a Premed
If you speak another language but are not fluent, take advantage of your time as a premed to hone these skills. Consider taking elective courses in that language in college or joining conversation groups to improve your understanding of that language.
It may seem like a lot to add language learning to an already busy premed curriculum, but this can be done on a leisurely basis and does not need to occupy much time. Conversation 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 on your commute or during a workout can also be a great way to get exposure to a new language and practice that skill.
You will be surprised how much this knowledge can help you when you are in your clinical rotations as a medical student.
In fact, in the ophthalmology rotation where we had a large Armenian-speaking population, one of my classmates who was fluent in Armenian played an integral part in the clinic. He often served as an interpreter, helping communicate with patients and reducing their concerns. While the rest of us stood by idly and observed, he was very much involved. His knowledge of the language helped improve patient care and earned him points from attending physicians.
Improving foreign language skills or even learning a new language for the first time as a premed student can have another benefit. There are many parallels between learning a new language and learning medicine.
In fact, in some respects, medicine is like a foreign language with its own distinct terminology. A student learning French or Mandarin may spend hours learning new vocabulary and different verb tenses. Med students spend their first two years learning the names of diseases and medications, understanding pathophysiology and pharmacology. In both, only after repeated exposure to these concepts can they be put to use in practical settings.
The language learner may venture out and begin applying what he or she has learned by communicating in the language after enough practice. Similarly, med students begin to apply their knowledge of medicine and its lingo in clinical rotations and develop their clinical acumen during residency.
Those who have spent time learning a new language before starting med school will find that the framework they employed in learning a new language may apply to learning medicine as well.
Use Your Foreign Language Knowledge to Gain Clinical Experience
If you speak another language, take advantage of this skill to find clinical opportunities in health care. Some hospitals and health facilities may be willing to hire those with knowledge of another language to work as interpreters. You may also consider traveling to another country where the language is spoken.
For example, those who speak Spanish can partner with organizations working in Central or South America to support health care projects in those countries, or travel to those countries to learn about their health care system while gaining exposure to medicine. These types of experiences will make for great stories in your med school application essays and interviews.
Use Your Knowledge of the Language to Learn About the Culture
Language is not just 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 people who speak that language. As discussed above, you can do this by traveling to another country or by immersing yourself in a community locally where that language is spoken.
You may also consider joining a campus club dedicated to promoting a certain culture. For example, if you are aspiring to learn Vietnamese, you may find a Vietnamese student association on your college campus. Another great way to use your knowledge of another language to learn about a different culture is by interacting with patients in clinical settings.
Recognize that by immersing yourself in a different culture, you will not understand all its nuances. Also, do not assume from interactions with a limited number of people that you can apply what you have 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, listen with an open mind to learn about their views and preferences, and 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 may give you unique insight into how culture may affect an individual’s views on medical care. Either way, this exposure will allow you to understand and embrace the many different views that your future patients may espouse.
Many premed students underestimate the value that knowledge of another language can bring to their med school application. In particular, if you have made efforts to hone your language skills through college or applied this knowledge to connect with patients and learn about their culture, take advantage of your applications to highlight these experiences, reflect on how they contributed to your growth and showcase how they will allow you to bring something unique as an incoming student.
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Advice for Premed Students Who Speak More Than 1 Language originally appeared on usnews.com