As part of such a diverse class of dental students, I find myself in awe of how many different languages we can collectively speak. The diversity in my class alone is reflective of the diversity that we have in the U.S. According to the US Census Bureau, about a quarter of Americans speak a language other than English at home. In 2010, Spanish was the widest-spoken language other than English. Other common languages include French, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean and German. Clearly, in today’s globalized world, multilingualism is increasingly important. Here are some reasons speaking another language can benefit both you and the people around you:
Stay mentally fit
As a student, improved problem solving and multitasking skills can be a huge plus. Did you know that being bilingual can delay the effects of cognitive decline associated with aging and Alzheimer’s? Ellen Bialystok, a psycholinguist at York University in Toronto, explains, “the age of dementia onset for the bilinguals was 4 years later than it was for the monolinguals—a highly significant difference.”
Connect with patients
For many non-English speakers, seeing a doctor who speaks the language they speak can establish better trust and make them feel at ease in the dental chair. Lina El-Kashef, our resident polyglot, can speak English, Arabic (including Hassaniya Arabic), Spanish and French. She told me about one of her most memorable experiences while translating for a Sudanese refugee at a charity clinic. “When she saw me and recognized that I spoke Arabic, she got so emotional and started crying.” The patient had been delaying going to the dentist for her periodontal issues because she felt like she couldn’t communicate properly.
Expand your cultural competency
ADEA defines cultural competency as “a person’s ability to understand and interact with people from cultures and backgrounds other than their own.” Many parts of culture are intertwined with language, both verbal and non-verbal. For example, nodding your head up and down means “yes” while left to right means “no” in English. In Bulgarian, however, these motions mean the complete opposite. This could make for a potentially confusing conversation during a dental treatment.
Find unique networking opportunities
Knowing another language opens up opportunities that you wouldn’t have even known existed. Precious Bieni, a D1 at Baylor, recounts her experiences of how she got to teach at elementary schools in rural areas of Korea. These students had significantly less exposure to English than those in the city. This teaching opportunity led her to shadow a Korean dentist’s office, which eventually lead her to the perfect career choice. As she explains, “through that shadowing experience, I found out that I really wanted to pursue dentistry.”
For those of you who are already multilingual, use it to your advantage. For those who are not, it’s never too late to start learning. Speaking another language can offer numerous benefits for your brain, your practice and your patients. So the next time you have the opportunity to speak, hablar, parler, 말하다, sprechen, or nói in a different language, I hope you keep these amazing benefits in mind.
~Lana Khazma, Texas A&M ’20