English As The Language Of Medical Humanities Learning In Nepal: Our Experiences

April 22, 2009 at 9:17 am

Commentary by P. Ravi Shankar, M.D. and Rano Mal Piryani, M.D., Department of Medical Education, KIST Medical College, Lalitpur, Nepal

A previous blog (Shankar R., Medical Humanities: Sowing the Seeds in the Himalayan Country of Nepal). and journal articles (1, 2) described medical humanities modules at two Nepalese medical schools. Here we discuss some aspects of language choice when teaching medical humanities to participants.

Language is a touchy issue among students. Many Nepalese medical schools admit students from Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and few students from other countries. Most Nepalese students have Nepali or Nepal Bhasa (Newari) as their mother tongue. The Indian students speak a variety of languages; however, Hindi is the national language of India. Neither group is favorably disposed towards the other's language. English is the medium of instruction and is accepted by all (students and teachers).

Multiplicity of languages

The multiplicity of languages spoken in South Asia creates its own set of problems. Often the language of the dominant ethnic or religious group or of the majority of people is selected as the national language. However, the minority groups are often decidedly lukewarm towards this 'national language' and feel they may be at a disadvantage compared to 'native speakers' with regard to the national language. English often steps in as a compromise language. Due to the British legacy English is a familiar tongue and is also not the 'mother tongue' of South Asia's various ethnic groups. Only a very small minority have English as their native language. So all groups have an equal status as regards English and the issue of language can be resolved amicably at least for a certain period.

Language of higher education

English is the language of higher education in Nepal. Classes are conducted in English in universities and colleges. The language of interaction in the classroom may be Nepali or other languages. Also often the slides and other audiovisual materials are written in English while the subject matter is explained and discussed in a mixture of English and Nepali. Certain posh English medium schools in South Asia insist that students use only English within the campus to ensure that they become more familiar with English, especially the spoken language.

Language of teaching the Medical Humanities

A voluntary Medical Humanities module was conducted at the Manipal College of Medical Sciences, Pokhara, Nepal (1, 2). The majority of student participants were from two countries, Nepal and India. Literature and art, case scenarios, group work, debates and role plays were used to explore various aspects of the humanities. The debates and role-plays were conducted in English and language did not seem to act as a barrier to communication. The only problem noted was with literature excerpts. The English was felt to be tough on occasions by the participants and they had difficulty identifying with the situation depicted in certain excerpts.

The authors had conducted a module for faculty members and medical/dental officers at KIST Medical College, Imadol, Lalitpur, Nepal which also used English as the language of learning. The difference from MCOMS was that most of the participants were Nepalese. The authors used 'different' literature excerpts keeping in mind feedback from the participants of the Pokhara module. The excerpts were simplified. However, again the participants had problems with certain of the literature excerpts. Language difficulty and inability to identify with the situation depicted were again cited. The role-plays were conducted in Nepali and the group work was presented using a mixture of Nepali and English. As is common, the writing was in English but the presentation often in Nepali!

Art as a substitute for literature

At present, the authors are conducting a module for medical students at KIST Medical College. Six of the faculty participants of the previous module have joined as facilitators for the student module. The module again uses English as the language of learning. Keeping in mind previous experiences, the authors are not using literature excerpts in the module. It has been our consistent observation that painting and art has the ability to overcome linguistic, cultural, social and other barriers. We are using paintings for various sessions and the feedback has been positive. The role-plays are usually conducted in Nepali and the group work presentations are carried out in English and Nepali.

Jekyll & Hyde

We feel that being exposed to English right from childhood, students in South Asia accept it as a working language. Most however, speak a different language at home and this causes a dichotomy. May be we develop a split personality, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon. English describing common place events and household and social activities may be especially difficult as these events are often described using local languages in our setting. Fruits, vegetables, flowers, common implements and religious and other customs and ceremonies common in the west are often difficult for South Asians to understand and comprehend.

Disadvantages and Advantages of English

Using English has the disadvantage of excluding patients from deliberations and decisions about their condition in many cases and may preserve and perpetuate an elite, snobbish image of the medical profession. Does thinking in the western language westernize our thoughts and our outlook? Do we loose the ability to think and understand the native perspective? Do we become 'brown sahibs'? Could this be one of the reasons behind the massive brain drain and migration to the English speaking west? Are we becoming strangers in our own countries?

English also has many advantages. South Asians have easy access to the vast amount of medical and non-medical literature written in English. In the case of the Medical Humanities we were and are fortunate to be able to access and use material in English. Also we can more easily communicate our findings and observations to other workers in the field. Western teachers also find it easier to help and contribute to a course using English as the language of learning.

Language and literature

We wonder, sometimes whether language is the only factor behind this lack of identification with and difficulty in understanding literature. In South Asia, after completing ten years of schooling students diverge into three streams, arts (humanities), commerce, and science. The top ranking students usually go for science. For getting admission to medical school it is mandatory that the student takes the science stream and studies Physics, Chemistry and Biology during the last two years of schooling. A study conducted at MCOMS had shown that preclinical students read widely beyond their course and were interested in literature. (3) However, information on reading habits of doctors is lacking. Could it be possible that doctors have not developed the ability and the aptitude to understand and appreciate literature? A demanding professional career may have prevented them from developing interests beyond medicine. Could the teaching of arts in schools, or the lack of it, have been partly responsible for this lack of interest? Certain aspects of arts and crafts teaching in South Asian schools and the language of instruction at school have been covered in a recent blog article (Shankar R.A Arts and humanities: a neglected aspect of education in South Asia, British Medical Journal: Medical Humanities blog).

Our experience with using English for humanities modules has been largely positive. But as English is the medium of instruction in medical school we are conditioned to the language and the viewpoint and thinking framework it imposes. Most of us are comfortable with English and will have difficulty dealing with technical medical terms in native languages. I think we will continue to use English as the language for Medical Humanities modules as long as it remains the medium of instruction. We have accepted its advantages and disadvantages and at present are unable to look beyond English. Eventually English may become more localized and accepted as a South Asian language or the region will develop another link language and medium of instruction. Which one of these two scenarios will come to pass only time will tell but considering past and present experience we think the former may be more likely!

1. Shankar PR. A Voluntary Medical Humanities Module in a Medical College in Western Nepal: Participant feedback. Teaching and Learning in Medicine (in press)
2. Shankar PR. A Voluntary Medical Humanities Module at the Manipal College of Medical Sciences, Pokhara, Nepal. Family Medicine 2008; 40:468-470.
3. Shankar PR; Dubey AK; Mishra P; Upadhyay DK. Reading Habits and Attitude Toward Medical Humanities of Basic Science Students in a Medical College in Western Nepal. Teaching and Learning in Medicine 2008; 20:308-13.