To speak medical English fluently we must have the courage to improvise without being frozen by the fear of making mistakes.
You have a good understanding of medical English from all those papers that you read, but then, all of a sudden, when you need a word, it’s gone.
Well, I’m here to share a few things that might help. And I’m writing them in the cemetery. Why? Because it’s where I go to think, contemplate and walk undisturbed.
There is much research that supports the mental health benefits of walking, and I have certainly found it to be a great creativity booster. It gets my neurons dancing.
Which is why, as a language coach and medical English teacher, I regularly prescribe walking. Furthermore, it also releases those positive chemicals we need to combat anxiety. Have you been for a walk recently?
Learning Medical English is not the same as studying it:
Learning is a process with many steps. Studying, contemplation, understanding, reflection, action, and effective retrieval—these are the vital ingredients that make learning effective. Have I missed any?
‘Without knowledge action is useless and knowledge without action is futile.’ Abu Bakr.
In simple words, just knowing stuff is not enough. It’s what we do with that knowledge.
For it to be useful, we have to remember it. And you know that as a medical professional, your learning journey doesn’t end with graduation. Healthcare is constantly evolving, fueled by advancements of artificial intelligence (AI) and medical breakthroughs, which can feel like knowledge overload.
And, on top of all that, English is your second language. So, how do you retain and retrieve new knowledge when needed?
Finding those lost medical words:
Medical English includes two sub groups. The latinate terms – these are what you find in Anatomy and Physiology textbooks and academic papers, and layman’s terms, which are what patients use to refer to those academic terms. And you need to know both.
If your first language is French, Italian or Spanish it’s slightly easier. If it’s not, then it will be more of a challenge. But what leads to fluency is the ability to retrieve the language effortlessly. And that means putting some effort in.
More if your first language is Arabic, Japanese or Russian. Sorry.
In a world where information is readily accessible online, it is vital that we develop and practise effective retrieval strategies or risk losing them. We must find ways to make our neural synapses dance and connect with each other, and when faced with difficult steps, have the courage to improvise without being frozen by the fear of making mistakes.
Learning from mistakes:
Mistakes are stepping stones to progress.
Instead of fixating on avoiding errors, embrace them as opportunities for growth. When we make mistakes, it’s crucial to pause, analyse, and understand the underlying reasons.
Are you relying too heavily on translation? Are you unconsciously following structures from your native language?
Identifying errors is the first step. The next is changing how we think about them. Instead of saying, ‘I always make that mistake’ or ‘I can’t do that.’ I now ask myself ‘What can I change?’ or ‘How can I do that?’
Changing my mindset allowed me to find solutions.
Creating my mnemonics:
Have you ever come across a medical term that just wouldn’t stick? I have. And I discovered a powerful solution, a simple system for improving and assisting my memory. Here’s one example:
I always confused the words “diastolic” and “systolic,” so I developed a mnemonic based on the sound and meaning.
First, I connected “systolic” with the word “system” since it represents the active pumping of blood within our body’s system. Then, I connected “diastolic” with the word “die” because it’s when the heart rests between beats. In English, saying ‘He’s at rest’ means he’s died.
These mnemonic devices can serve as powerful memory aids and sharing them with others can help us remember them. If you keep repeating the same mistakes, can you create your own mnemonics to help yourself overcome them?
If you have any good ones to share, add them to the comments.
More ways to make connections:
Of course, mnemonics are just one way of making a connection, and your neural synapses may need to find alternative routes when faced with a block. You could ask your medical English teacher for help creating strategies to overcome them. Like me, she is sure to have a collection of them. Remember, you are not alone on this journey.
Here are a few ideas that my students have found effective. I suggest you experiment with different methods to find what works best for you.
Consistency is key, so plan time for regular review and practice.
Here are the links to programmes mentioned in the activities: GPs behind Closed Doors Trust Me, I’m a Doctor and Tandem.
If you are looking for something to read which is medical but not academic, you could try The Hippocratic Post for short articles on current medical advances.
Believe in yourself:
Lastly, I want to emphasise the importance of having a positive mindset.
Language learning can be challenging, and self-doubt may creep in at times. However, remember that you have overcome numerous obstacles throughout your medical career. Therefore, believe in your abilities to conquer this linguistic journey as well.
Celebrate small victories along the way, and be patient with yourself. Take time out from studying, go for regular walks and find a place where you can reflect.
Think about how you can overcome your hurdles and develop your positive mindset.
Each step forward will bring you closer to fluency.
Rachel Williams is an experienced Medical English teacher and former nurse. She helps international doctors pass the OET exam, become more fluent speakers and gain the confidence to use the English that they have studied in real life situations.