With the growth of the Internet and of English as the common language of science, you’d think there would be no need to learn another language to be the best possible physician. However, two very important reasons motivated me to learn other languages. First, access to new scientific knowledge that is available solely in foreign languages, and second, the ability to communicate directly with patients and their families.
In 2003, I learned French in order to read the original texts and scientific papers of my French colleagues. These colleagues are known for their skill in treating patellofemoral disorders, but the scientific work on which it was based had not been fully translated into English. In 2005, after studying French for several years, I traveled to France to work with them. I returned with a much better understanding of their approach. My French colleagues and I still collaborate and as a result of my efforts to communicate their ideas in English, I’ve been able to make an important contribution to patellofemoral treatments in the English-speaking world.
I learned Spanish for a much simpler reason: to communicate directly with patients and their families in order to understand what they need from me, and to counsel them about what I think is the best course of action for us to take. This is difficult to do if you don’t speak a common language, even with translators.
In 2008, I saw a 12 year old girl whose parents spoke no English. She spoke English perfectly, but she didn’t understand why her parents had brought her in to see me. Through an interpreter, I learned that they were concerned because she was limping. She had no pain and seemed unaware that she limped, but in fact, she did have a slight limp on exam. I quickly realized that my inability to communicate directly with her parents might mean we’d have to do a lot of extra tests to make a diagnosis. In the end, all went well with this patient, but the experience gave me the motivation I needed to become fluent in Spanish.
Traveling to other parts of the world has opened my eyes to approaches I would never have thought up on my own. Orthopedic disorders may be similar throughout the world, but the tools surgeons use to treat them and the environment in which orthopedists work can vary widely. Working in a clinic or an operating room where familiar problems are solved in unusual ways is fascinating and inspiring. These experiences have influenced my own practice immeasurably.