Connecting with others

The benefits of learning another language for patient care

“One of the things I love most about my work is being able to communicate with my patients in their native language,” writes Taiwo Ajumobi, DO.


In February, we celebrate love, which is expressed in many different ways in each of our lives. In medicine, many of us love our work and we love our patients. That is certainly the case for me, despite the bureaucratic and never-ending patient charts. 

One of the things I love most about my work is being able to communicate with my patients in their native language. In fact, on one particular day in clinic, I spoke with patients in three different languages—English, Spanish and Yoruba—all before lunchtime.

The clinic where I serve provides medical care to a low-income population and most patients are uninsured. The racial and cultural demographic of my patients is diverse, and they speak many languages in addition to English. Most days and especially on that clinic day, I speak to patients in English and in Spanish.

For my Spanish-speaking patients, the clinic does have both in-person and electronic translators. However, using either usually results in much lost time—time that could have been used to learn about the patient’s medical ailment and create a clinical plan.

An additional benefit of learning another language is the reduction in the number of in-person and/or virtual translators needed in a clinic. Most translators, if they aren’t volunteers, charge by the minute (whether in-person or virtual), which can quickly add up.

I do not consider myself fully fluent in Spanish (I have a good memory of my high school Spanish lessons) so I do still use a translator to help me with some phrases. However, my encounters with my patients tend to go faster than my non-bilingual colleagues’ do because I can directly speak some phrases or instructions to my patients in Spanish.

Breaking language barriers helps build a bond

One of my teachers in medical school taught me that as physicians, we are honored to be privy to the personal information that patients tell us. That bonding with the patient is not the same when we don’t speak the same language. Having a translator does help, but it can also add to the awkwardness since what is normally an intimate conversation for two has now turned into a conference of three.

How do I address this? With the universal language of laughter. With my Spanish-speaking patients I start off by saying something in Spanish such as “I’m sorry, but my Spanish speaking skills are bad, and I may sound like a wailing cat.” My patients usually smile and laugh at my statement. Sometimes, something else happens—my patients will open up and tell me about how comfortable (or uncomfortable) they are with speaking in English. When that happens, I then respond by saying “that’s OK, we are going to learn from each other.”

The language barrier that would have kept us apart is now what has bonded us. We trust each other to be patient, we will laugh at awkward moments, and we will resolve misinterpretations if they occur.

­­Insight into cultural practices

On that fateful clinic day, a Nigerian female patient came in. I learned she was Nigerian after reading her name on the medical chart. Her name also let me know that she was from the same major ethnic group (Yoruba) as me. When I greeted her, I spoke using Yoruba phrases and gestures, which she was pleasantly surprised by. She in turn was more relaxed and open to speaking with me.

She told me that she had been having increased difficulty breathing for the past few weeks. I asked her if she was diagnosed with asthma, and she admitted that she was and that she was using her rescue inhaler more often than usual. I then looked in her chart and noticed that she had two medications prescribed to her for asthma. She told me that she was only using her rescue inhaler when she felt she needed it. After examining her to confirm that she wasn’t currently in respiratory distress, I explained to her the reason she was prescribed two medications, and how the medication she currently wasn’t taking was most likely the one she needed to use daily to manage her asthma.

Although I wondered why she hadn’t asked her doctor questions about the medicines, I remember that my mom once told me that some Nigerians believe it is rude to ask a doctor questions, even if they don’t understand the doctor’s instructions. There are other cultures that have this similar belief of the physician-patient dynamic. In fact, recent studies have shown that clinicians who treat immigrant patients are more likely to make decisions on their patients’ behalf versus shared decision-making. This practice can increase the risk of negative health consequences for the patient, especially if the clinician does not confirm that the patient understands the treatment plan.

I tried to keep all this in mind as I discussed with this patient the importance of each medication she was prescribed. This case served as a reminder to me of the importance of using the teach-back method as a way for clinicians to assess how well patients (no matter their racial or language background) understand the instructions we as health care professionals give them.

In the video above, Dr. Ajomobi discusses this article and the benefits of learning another language for patient care.

Health connections to learning languages

Learning a new language is not only a benefit for patient care; it also benefits the learner. People who have learned a new language are reported to be less likely to experience depression and more likely to have enhanced cognitive and multitasking abilities, as well as improved memory.

In the end, there are so many reasons to learn a new language, and it is never too late. I myself completed an online Spanish for Medical Professionals course hosted by a nearby community college in 2023, and this year my goal is to increase my American Sign Language (ASL) fluency. Why ASL? Because I mentor a kindergartener with speech delay and he is benefiting from the little ASL I have taught him. Plus, at times I emphasize my words with my hands, so learning ASL gives me the opportunity to literally talk with my hands.

Language-learning resources

Here’s a list of options if you are wondering where to get started with learning a language.

To the osteopathic physicians and others who are willing to undertake these linguistic challenges, I say “Buena surete,” and “Aseyori”: Good luck to you!

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

DOs go global: What to know about practicing osteopathic medicine abroad

The power of silence in patient care and human connection

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