Do You Speak the Language?

Several years ago, I was driving down our hometown’s messy strip of eateries, storefronts, and billboards with my then 6-year-pld son.  (Don’t the most interesting conversations with our children occur when we are driving them around?) He said, “I wish that for just one day I would not be able to read.”  Puzzled about that odd wish, I asked for clarification. “Because I would like to see what the signs look like when I don’t know what they mean.” Hmm…this was the child who had been labeled “a divergent thinker” by his teacher. I think he may have been on to something.

I have been speaking the language of science, in one form or another, for close to half a century, so it is very difficult for me to remember when I didn’t know what the words meant. Worse, I am married to another physician, so the language of medicine really is a first language in our household.  I tell my first semester anatomy students, as they struggle to learn directional terms, that one of the great things about this state of affairs  is that one can direct spousal back-scratching with pinpoint accuracy: “A little more medial, Honey…infrascapular…now just a tad superior..that’s the spot…ahhh!”  The words of my discipline are so woven into the fabric of my thinking that I can’t remember what it was like not to know what they mean.

My students are often overwhelmed by the volume of new vocabulary to be mastered in anatomy and physiology.  During my first class period this term, one student raised his hand and asked “Do you want us to know all of this?” “Of course,” I replied, “and there will be a lot more tomorrow and the day after that.”  (Cue generalized moaning and wilting.)

Ever mindful that learning ought to be pleasurable, I offer the class a few advantages to really mastering the language:

  • You will become part of an exclusive club.  When the docs on Grey’s Anatomy holler for a bag of normal saline or diagnose an epidural hemorrhage, you will know what they are talking about.  You, too, will realize how silly it is for cosmetic ads to tout their product’s ability to “neutralize free radicals.”  You will understand how Viagra and Cialis get the job done!
  • You will enjoy the sensual pleasure of having cool phrases like “pseudostratified ciliated columnar epithelium”  and “poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis” roll right off your very own tongue.  And you will feel so smug that you actually know what they mean. This is an achievable challenge that you can master.
  • You can surprise your child’s teacher!  Young children are linguistic sponges who love to help their parents memorize the myriad terms of anatomy.  They will happily allow their bodies to be plastered with Post-it® notes  designating bones, muscles, and regional terms.  And they will learn those terms faster than you will, then proudly share their knowledge at school.
  • You will own something of value. This will become evident long before you touch your first patient.  When you use appropriate medical terminology in conversations with healthcare providers, those folks notice. Rightly or wrongly, the level of care and attention that you and your loved ones receive goes up. (Student after student has made this “discovery.”) Providers recognize that they are dealing with one of their own.  You can read your own medical reports.  You ask better questions. You understand the process.

I also share three ways that I know we are getting the job done:

  1. Your child’s teacher will ask where she’s getting this stuff (see above).
  2. Your family and friends will start to scream “Enough already!”
  3. You will dream about anatomy and physiology

As these “symptoms” indicating successful transfer of knowledge begin to appear in our class, students take pride in sharing their experiences, adding to the sense of community and often injecting a bit of humor into our day. Still, like my son Brian, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to “un-know” it all….just for a day.


Do you have a way of helping your students master discipline-specific vocabulary? D0 your students have common experiences that let you know you’re getting the job done?  Please share.


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