In many ways, this is understandable. For one thing, English has long been the modern-day lingua franca of the scientific and medical community. But while a lingua franca has many practical implications, it can also hold back those who don’t speak it, or don’t speak it fluently.
For example, many medical researchers experience challenges when trying to write and publish papers in established medical journals if English isn’t a language in which they’re at ease.
Another issue is the availability of medical textbooks and other training materials. While many languages around the world do fortunately have translations and original texts available for students, in some countries this isn’t the case. India was one of these places (and, unfortunately for the speakers of many of its hundreds of other native languages, still is).
Medical students from countries around the world have done their studies in English despite it not being their native language, and many tend to be all right with this. For instance, contributors to this Quora thread give many examples, whether of students from abroad who enrolled in English-speaking schools or of medicine being taught in English locally. Most say they’ve had little or no difficulty applying their studies and translating information to their patients.
A recent WHO study of Arabic-speaking medical students studying in English adds to this impression.
But one thing all of these students and graduates have in common is that they are reasonably fluent, if not perfectly fluent in English. They entered their classes already able to comprehend and communicate in this non-native language. In India, on the other hand, this isn’t always the case.
The choice of making medical studies available to native Hindi speakers was spurred on by the fact that many of these students never had the chance to learn or perfect their English.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, explains that many come from impoverished backgrounds where they didn’t have access to learning in a foreign language. After overcoming many hardships, these students enroll in medical studies in the hopes of bettering their lives and the lives of people in their community…only to find that they can’t take classes because they don’t speak English fluently. This has resulted in students dropping out or even committing suicide.
Obviously, it was vital to change this. But it hasn’t been easy. As is the case for a number of other languages, there’s a lack of medical textbooks in Hindi. Fortunately, the government has launched what seems to be an admirably efficient campaign to change this. A team of 97 doctors have been at work on it for hours a day. So far, five first-year medical textbooks have been translated into Hindi, with many more on the way.
Translating material into Hindi doesn’t just open doors to medical students; these textbooks may also become important resources for Hindi speakers around the world, as well as for doctors who work with Hindi patients or colleagues.
After all, while a lingua franca is useful, having the opportunity to communicate and understand medical information in your native language can be even more impactful. And in the case of medicine, knowing medical terminology in patients’ native language could even save lives.
The Indian government’s initiative seems like an excellent way to provide more doctors, better adapted training, and an improvement in the quality of life of both medical students and their future patients. Hopefully, other countries with significant language disparities in medical studies will take notice!