Happy International Mother Language Day! This annual observation is dedicated to promoting linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism -- which also makes it a great time to highlight how learning a second (or third) language can be advantageous to medical students. From classical languages to world languages, both have unique benefits. Here’s a closer look at why language studies are so valuable, along with how they can help you succeed as a med student and practicing physician.

Classical Languages: An Inside Edge

Latin and Greek were once prerequisites for medical students and practitioners. This was far from a mere not to the past. Rather, it served a distinct purpose: the terminology used in gross anatomy originate almost entirely from these languages. As a result, many of today’s medical students who lack a foundation in these areas are at a serious disadvantage.  

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic set out to determine just how important Latin and Greek etymologies are to medical students, residents, and staff physicians by incorporating studies in these areas into the curriculum. Not only did students score higher after having studied etymologies, but they also reported more ease and enjoyability when it came to anatomy learning. Their conclusion, as published in the academic journal, Clinical Anatomy? “This study provides novel scientific evidence that a basic understanding of Latin and Greek etymologies enhances performance and comfort when learning and using medical terminology.”

According to Noah DeLone, MD in the American College of Emergency Physicians’ Medical Humanities section, classical language competency can also help you be a more skilled practitioner. “A medical student with a strong background in the classics can easily grasp the meaning of dystocia, crus cerebri, or caput medusae. With a little more insight, one can learn about the vermis, remembering classic Latin pronounced ‘v’s as ‘w’s and correctly identify its similarity to a worm. Better yet, the astute student of Latin will feel comfortable taking terms and applying them to novel situations. It allows students of Latin to use and interpret abbreviations with confidence rather than as some outdated relics,” he says.

And while English may have emerged as the “predominant lingua franca of medicine,” that only underscores the value of classical languages. Continues DeLone, “With English having such a prominent place in the medical and scientific world, it would behoove medical professions to acquire a deeper understanding of its parent language and an easier grasp of the medical terminology thereby derived. It is the contention of some experts that English will not utterly eclipse Latin, but that its origin as a Latin-derived language serves the role of promulgating Latin into the next era.”

World Languages: The Bilingual Imperative

In an increasingly globalized world, the ability to provide care in a patient’s native language offers profound benefits, including everything from increasing safety to facilitating patient trust.

Contends Jennifer Powell, D.O., for Hallmark Health Medical Associates, “Patients need to feel comfortable talking openly about their health for doctors to provide care that gets to the root of the problem.  However, that requires a lot of trust.  We have to show patients that we really want to get to know them. That means understanding their background, including the culture and family they grew up in and the language they speak.”

Think an interpreter can make up for your lack of language skills? Think again. While they certainly can be useful team members when doctors lack fluency, they do little to bring doctors and patients closer together. “"This person, who is unknown to the family, comes in and is not the person they've been in contact with. It's basically having an added stranger involved in the care, versus the physician or team that has been involved,” says bilingual pediatrician Michelle Aguilar, MD.

From a career perspective, bilingualism is also beneficial.  According to New American Economy’s report, “Not Lost in Translation: The Growing Importance of Foreign Language Skills in the U.S. Job Market,” the healthcare sector boasts “an especially high demand for bilingual workers.”  In other words, in a competitive market of qualified doctors, bilingual skills can be a key differentiator among job candidates.  The same applies to practicing medicine abroad: If you want to work overseas, language skills are a necessary part of the equation.

While learning a new language may be the last thing you want to add to your plate as a medical school, the fact is that doing so can help you not only learn better, but also to apply that learning in the most effective way. One adage worth keeping in mind as you go? “The old doctor spoke Latin, the new doctor speaks English, the good doctor speaks to the patient.” This works metaphorically, but it’s also literal: The more directly you’re able to communicate with patients, the more successful you’ll be from a patient care perspective.