Language Suggestions

I hope this finds you all well. I am considering learning a foreign language while I have the opportunity in college and I was wondering if anyone had suggestions for a language that might come in handy as a physician? I am very interested in volunteer work in Africa etc. so I was considering French, but I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks

I particularly enjoy the French language, and it may come in handy in some countries like Senegal.

Spanish will always be useful, I suspect. You may also be interested in a dialect of Chinese, or something with similar utility.

Do you enjoy learning languages? The best advice is probably go with what you like best - you’ll get the most out of it that way, as well . Of course, as you said, there are utilitarian values to langue-learning as well.

The clinic that I work at in Greensboro sees a pretty wide cross-section of the community and, even here, I have met patients from Liberia, Algeria, Ethiopia (and many others I’m sure I am forgetting) that speak French. We also have had patients who speak Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese and others. If you were looking for a second language that would be handy in the US, I would suggest Spanish. In Africa, it seems like you could hardly go wrong with French (especially in the North and West).

For myself, the frequency of opportunities to use a language determine how well I integrate and retain it. Even though I had several semesters of Spanish in college, I found I was pretty rusty when I tried to dig it up at the clinic. On the other hand, the Chinese that I have learned relatively recently from my wife (a native speaker) sounds nearly fluent to other native Chinese speakers even though my vocabulary is still woefully small.

You might also consider that medical jargon is probably a specialized subset of every language. Consider the fact that in the US where English tends to be the primary spoken and written language, most non-medical people are unfamiliar with words like edema, urticaria, or ecchymosis. The words swelling, hives, or bruises are more familiar, but not necessarily so for a non-native speaker. This might be something to keep in mind if you intend to learn a language for use in a medical capacity.

I think languages are fun all by themselves regardless of their utility, though. This might explain the three semesters of Latin I took as an undergrad, “just because…” =) Whatever you decide, try to have fun with it!


Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Polish - there are large populations of these immigrants scattered throughout the US.

Others to consider: Vietnamese, French, German

If you take Spanish, French and Italian will come much easier (and vice versa). Spanish will come in handy wherever you practice but if you know you are going to practice in a specific area, like maybe South Florida, Spanish would be helpful but so might French and Creole.

Depends on where you plan to practice medicine. In most of the US, Spanish is the indispensable language. I have earned the gratitude of numerous residents and attendings by translating for them. And I get a lot better history from my patient.

In the past, I spoke French and Russian. Neither one of them would be as useful to me.

What you learn in college courses will just provide a very minimal foundation for clinical language skills. You really need to be immersed, with native speakers, preferably taking classes at the same time, for the quickest and most efficient learning. It doesn’t even take that long (a few weeks if you have some basic grammar etc.).

I am in my second year of Spanish while waiting to hear about applications. I can already speak Frech and German (lived in Europe several years) but I thought Spanish would be most useful, especially here on the West Coast. The grammar isn’t too hard but I will need about a month in Mexico or South America to be able to really converse. In my area there is also a Spanish for Medical Professionals course that I may take.

UAG in Guadalajara, Mexico has a Medical Spanish Course. Check out their website for info then select Med Spanish Course