Original articles

How do doctors learn the spoken language of their patients?

Colin Pfaff, Ian Couper


In South Africa, many doctors consult across both a language and cultural barrier. If patients are to receive effective care, ways need to be found to cross this communication barrier.
Qualitative individual interviews were conducted with 7 doctors who had successfully learned the language of their patients to determine their experiences and how they did so.
All doctors used a combination of methods to learn the language. Listening was found to be very important, as was being prepared to take a risk or appear to be foolish. The doctors found it was important to try out the newly learnt language on patients and stressed that learning the language was also learning a culture. The importance of motivation in language learning, the value of being immersed in the language one is trying to learn, and the role of prior experience in language learning, were commonly mentioned. The doctors deeply valued the better rapport and deeper relationships with patients that resulted from their language learning efforts.

Authors' affiliations

Colin Pfaff, SAMA

Ian Couper,

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language learning, communication

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2009;99(7):520.

Article History

Date submitted: 2008-09-24
Date published: 2009-07-07

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