It’s the stuff of nightmares.
You don’t feel well, and you know you need to see a doctor.
But when you get there, everyone is speaking a strange language you don’t understand.
To make matters worse, no one seems to understand what you’re saying.
For countless patients, this nightmare scenario is a reality. While many hospitals and clinics have translators or translation hotlines, accessing these essential tools takes valuable time.
Plus, having to communicate through an intermediary inherently ups the chances of miscommunication, putting people’s lives at greater risk.
If saving lives and improving people’s health isn’t a good reason to start learning a foreign language, we don’t know what is.
But the question remains: What are the most useful languages for a scenario like the above?
However, when deciding which language to learn for medicine, whether it’s for your own medical practice or a job as a medical worker in a specific setting, there are some factors you’ll need to take into consideration.
Here’s what you need to know when selecting the most useful language for your and your patients’ purposes.
What Factors to Consider When Deciding What Language Is Most Useful for Your Medical Practice or Job
The first factor to consider is the region in which you intend to work or practice. Since each region has different demographics, region influences how frequently you’ll encounter patients who speak different languages and dictates which languages are most common.
If you’re in the U.S., for more information on what languages are spoken in your region, you might want to check MLA Language Map Data Center. While there’s an unfortunate lack of more recent data, regional pockets of foreign languages usually remain somewhat consistent since immigrants are often drawn to areas with other immigrants from their homelands.
Next, you might want to consider your specialty. Some conditions are more common in certain ethnic groups. For instance, if you want to specialize in Tay-Sachs disease, which is most common among Ashkenazi Jews and French Canadians, you might benefit from learning Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish and/or French.
Finally, consider what you hope to accomplish. For instance, if you want to help under-served communities, you might consider selecting a language that, though widely spoken, isn’t as widely studied. If your main goal is being able to help as many patients as possible, you might on the other hand choose from the most widely spoken languages.
The 5 Most Useful Languages to Learn for Medicine
For the purposes of this list, we’ve combined data from Zocdoc—a resource dedicated to helping medical professionals grow their practices that uses their own data gathered from appointment bookings and searches—with additional resources to assess which languages are particularly useful.
While Zocdoc’s “useful” languages don’t exactly represent the most widely spoken languages in the United States, there are other factors that can contribute to which languages patients want doctors to speak. For instance, many non-native English speakers are fluent enough that they don’t require doctors who speak their native language. Similarly, some patients may have a trusted friend or family member who can come along to translate. The results could also be influenced by which demographics are most likely to use Zocdoc.
Also, as the languages below mainly take into account factors that are relevant for medicine in the United States, you may need to consider outside factors if you’re planning on working somewhere else.
No matter where you’re planning on working, though, you can start learning most of the languages on the list below (as well as several other popular world languages) on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like news, movie trailers, commercials and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Check out the “Health and Lifestyle” category for videos about health care, nutrition, exercise and more. Learning through authentic videos means you’ll be experiencing the language from the same perspective as your patients, thereby making it easier for you to connect with them from a common point of understanding.
Now let’s look at the useful languages below.
By and large, English is still the main language used in medicine in the United States. And it makes sense—according to the census data, over 230 million Americans spoke exclusively English at home. While another 60 million spoke a language other than English at home, the vast majority of these people spoke English well. So it should come as no surprise that Zocdoc’s research indicates that a whopping 99.23% of searches on Zocdoc were for English-speaking doctors.
So if you want to work or practice in the U.S. and aren’t fluent in English, this is a great reason to master the language.
In 2016, the United States Census Bureau estimated that 40 million residents speak Spanish at home, making it the second most widely spoken language in the United States. Because the Spanish language is so widespread in the United States, it’s relevant for any medical professional. However, it’s particularly relevant in areas with large Hispanic populations.
According to Pew Research Center, the states with the largest Hispanic populations are California, Texas and Florida. With 15 million Hispanic residents, California alone hosts over 25% of the nation’s Hispanic population.
However, Hispanic residents also make up a significant percentage of residents in several other states. For instance, more than a quarter of the population of New Mexico, California, Texas, Arizona and Nevada are Hispanic.
With growing Hispanic populations across the United States, the Spanish language will be particularly relevant in areas of increased growth. According to Pew Research Center, states that have seen the Latino population grow most rapidly since 2000 include South Dakota, Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Arkansas, North Dakota, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia.
In fact, the need for Spanish in medicine is so extreme that some even argue that all United States physicians should speak Spanish, as discussed in an article from the AMA Journal of Ethics.
Believe it or not, Russian is one of the most searched languages for physicians after Spanish.
The United States Census Bureau estimates that nearly 900,000 people in the United States speak Russian. While it’s not one of the most widely spoken languages in the United States, it’s still phenomenally useful for medicine in some places, largely because the population is more condensed than many other groups.
In fact, MLA Language Map Data Center estimates that over 25% of the Russian-speaking population in the United States live in New York. Another nearly 17% live in California. Therefore, if you’re looking to practice medicine in these major hubs, Russian might be the language for you.
Arabic is also a commonly searched language for physicians. With the United States Census Bureau estimating that over 900,000 people in the United States speak Arabic, it’s no wonder so many people are searching for Arabic-speaking doctors.
This is particularly true in regions with a large Arab population. Zocdoc found most searches came out of Illinois, Virginia and New York. However, MLA Language Map Data Center indicates that there are additional large population centers of Arabic speakers in California and Michigan.
Plus, if you’re interested in the historical foundations of medicine, Arabic could come in handy, since a lot of early research was done by Arab scholars.
French is more widely spoken in the United States than you may think. The United States Census Bureau estimates that over 1.2 million people in the United States speak French. Another nearly 740,000 speak French Creole.
MLA Language Map Data Center reports that the highest number of French speakers in the United States are located in New York, California and Louisiana. If you’re looking to branch out and learn French Creole, this is most widely spoken in Florida and New York.
However, French is so much more useful than the number of speakers within the United States alone would lead you to believe. This is a great language to look at if you’re considering usefulness worldwide. World language resource Ethnologue estimates that there are over 76 million native French speakers in the world. However, an additional 208 million people speak French as a second language. Therefore, while you might not be able to connect with patients in their native language, speaking French could help you connect with many in their second language.
Additionally, if you’re interested in humanitarian work, French could come in handy. Doctors Without Borders originated in France, and French is widely spoken in countries where they work, such as Belgium and Democratic Republic of Congo.
So if you’re looking to learn a useful language for medicine, consider these five languages.
Your patients will thank you!
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