The Language of Medicine

I’d like to open with an experience from last week during my Family Medicine clerkship rotation.  A patient (let’s call him John) was next on the list, and my preceptor warned me about a severe language barrier, and that he expected me to take about twice as long as normal for that reason.  So it was with some trepidation that I walked into the room, mentally rehearsing the hand signals and charades that I would have to use.  What a surprise when I walked in and realized the patient spoke my mother tongue: Cantonese.

The look of relief that crossed his face (probably mine as well) was unmistakeable when we both realized this would go a lot better than expected.  What we didn’t realize, however, was that although I was fluent in Cantonese, I was not at all medically literate in Chinese.  Google Translate made more than one appearance as I searched for terms like “sciatica” and “post-nasal drip”.  Although we both laughed about it during the visit, it was bizarre to be both fluent, yet not, in a second language.


Canada’s medical student population is culturally diverse, and students speak a large variety of languages.  This is, of course, invaluable given the diverse patient population.  However, I encourage medical students to brush up on medical terminology in other languages lest you run into the same experience as I did.  If nothing else, it will win you extra points with your preceptor and with the ward nurses!

There is a hidden bonus to practicing a second (or third) language on the side of medicine: you continue to exercise your mind in different ways yet within medicine, refreshing it from the mundanity of reading Bates’ Clinical Exam yet another time.  Research has shown that speaking more languages puts off the incidence of aging disorders such as Alzheimer’s.  Finally, for the pragmatic and career-oriented students out there, remember that if you speak “medicine” in another language, you make yourself more marketable in competitive fields.  Just a side bonus!