Although modern Australia comprises a large immigrant population with approximately half the population having been born overseas, our medical students until recently came from a predominately monolingual Anglo-Saxon stock, although this is changing. The selection of medical students draws heavily on those with strengths in the sciences rather than humanities and even medical students of Chinese-speaking backgrounds that I have taught have imperfect grasp of their mother tongue and second generation Greeks and Italians have all but lost their parents’ fluency. In Australian universities in general, the proportion of students majoring in a foreign language has fallen in the past few decades and the number of languages taught in Australian universities has also fallen despite an increasing multicultural nation. The teaching of Greek and Latin has fallen dramatically, and one can now do a BA in Ancient History and Classics without doing either language.
At high school, the number of students doing a language for matriculation in Queensland is low and unlike in Europe, the number of students who gain fluency in one let alone several foreign languages here is miniscule by comparison. As a Queensland “baby-boomer”, we had a limited menu of French or German with a sizable number of students doing these for grade 12. Some like me also did Latin and my father also did Ancient Greek for the Qld Senior Public Examination. However, despite this enforced diet of a European language, most students would have struggled to order a croissant or enquire how the find the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. I note that a few colleagues list French as a foreign language in the AMA Book of Specialist and General Practitioners. With the advent of more foreign graduates, there will clearly be more who are multi-lingual. However for the vast bulk of medical practitioners in Australia, the continued dominance of a linguistic monoculture will prevail and to the detriment of patient and doctor alike. As we are competing in a multilingual world, being monolingual is hardly a survival advantage.
I believe the current dominance of English has hidden effects on the practice of medicine and science in Australia and I believe we are the poorer for this. It makes us smug and mentally lazy. American medicine through its myriad of journals and scientific pre-eminence eclipses that of all other cultures. However this leads to an “American way” of seeing the world and therefore medicine, with an over-emphasis on technology rather than personal skills, judgment and compassion. Prime Minister, Mr. Kevin Rudd’s mastery of Mandarin has already had a considerable impact on his ability to build ties with the Chinese speaking diaspora. One can but contemplate the impact of an Arabic-speaking Australian prime minister or an American president on the impasse in the Middle Eastern.
What do we know about medicine and health delivery in non-Anglophone countries? Some of the largest pharmaceutical companies are based in non-English speaking countries. Although a lot of medical journals are in English, there are a large number of non-English-language journals as well as a great background wealth of medical tradition in China, India and Islamic societies. We are missing out on this exposure and I believe we are the poorer for this.
A monolingual view of the world leads in my opinion to a certain unwitting arrogance or at best a condescending attitude, or unconscious ”Anglo-paternalism” that expects the world to speak and think as we do. To the “Anglo”, our world and God is English. It is no wonder the French become testy when an Englishman approaches him in the street asking directions to the Louvre in English. Our meiopic Anglocentric Australian history is perpetuated in schools with scant reference to the numerous explorers from Portugal, Holland and France whose names dot our navigation chart with amazing frequency and many of whom navigated our waters long before Cook was born. Indeed we have a naïve fixation with Cook who is our version of George Washington.
How many Australians know of the Dutch explorer Jansz or the Frenchman, Baudin or the origins of the name of the Gulf of Carpentaria or that the French planted a flag in Western Australia in 1772 and claimed it in the name of Louis XV? There are over one thousand French names on the coast of Western Australia, South Australian and Tasmania. A few years ago before ANZAC Day, a teacher asked my ten year old son about Gallipoli. When he answered that the British and Australians had invaded Turkish soil, he was howled down by the teacher.
Since I was admitted to the French respiratory society, la Société de Pneumologie de Langue Française, (SLPF) about ten years ago, I have found reading their stimulating approach a welcome change to the tedious predictability of the discipline I read in Anglophone journals. The journal of the SPLF is La Revue des Maladies Respiratoires which is the oldest respiratory journal in the world dating back to Laennec. I soon realized that my view of the world and especially medicine was very narrow and Anglo-Saxon. On one of my visits to a Paris chest hospital, a Tunisian colleague showed me some of the textbooks in his office which included the original works of Laennec, some old medical texts in English including by Osler, and the works of Avicenna in Arabic, all of which he read fluently. French respiratory conferences attract francophone doctors from Europe, The Caribbean and French Guiana, Central Africa and the Ivory Coast, North Africa, Middle East, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar and French Polynesia. I am the only Australian. It is a cultural feast.
However, as an Australian, I learnt that I had something unique to contribute to the French. For example, after my military service in East Timor, I wrote an article on melioidosis, to “La Revue” which the French were interested to receive as they knew little about this disease which had become more relevant in Europe with air travel. I have since written about half a dozen articles in French and including a recent critical review of the lamentable state of thoracic medicine in Australia, which said things I could not have said in English. Writing in a foreign language is not a mere transliteration of words. It is like comparing oils to water colours. There are some things you just wouldn’t say in one language which may sound refreshingly witty in another.
In find publishing in non-Anglo journal is worth the trouble as it shows Australians can extend themselves into another culture. The benefit is bilateral. The French thoracic medical journals are of the highest quality, well presented in colour and eclipsing any comparable Australian journals and with useful synopses of the Anglo-Saxon (as they call it) medical literature where no equivalent exists in our journals about foreign journals. In our culture it is a one way street. Their sister journal, “Info Respiration” has colourful articles on the history of thoracic medicine, philosophy and literature.
Learning a language is not just learning words but a new paradigm which embodies culture, philosophy and morality. With the increasing dominance of English, such varied paradigms face extinction as can be seen in our own indigenous cultures. It is regrettable that for some French doctors, there is more prestige to be gained by publishing in an American or British journal as this may have a higher impact factor than a less widely read French journal.
I therefore encourage all doctors in Australia to adopt a foreign language as the benefits numerous for both the doctor and the adopted language and to consider publishing in it. I found the best way to learn medical French was to subscribe to French journals, attend conferences, go on Internet, read newspapers on line, join special interest groups and buy a French version of Harrison which I now use as my main textbook. Finding someone fluent to help you with a publication is an excellent way to improve one’s facility with a foreign language. What is most exciting is that new ideas and relationships follow which enrich life, and ultimately enrich this polyglot of new and old immigrants we call Australia. You might even attract some patients.
Since I started to write this article over a year ago, I have visited and fallen in love with Crete and am learning Modern Greek, having previously done a year of Ancient Greek as a medical student. My first Greek article, a community education article on sleep apnoea is being published in a local Greek newspaper and I also receive the excellent bilingual Greek respiratory journal, “PNEUMON”. Greek has revealed new vistas of life; food, beverages, customs, literature and religion.
Old dogs can learn new tricks and extending yourself in a new language is well worth the effort. Publishing in a “non-Anglo-Saxon” journal can give you a great “buzz” unrelated to “Impact Factor”. It also imparts intrinsic credibility and shows the world that Australia is not just an Anglophone monoculture of meat pies, beaches and surfboards; or maybe it still is?
P.S. I submitted this to the Med J Aust and it was rejected…”cultural cringe? They may have been worried we would all submit in an Arabic journal. Barry Humphreys, the comedian also known as Dame Edna Everidge once said “Australia is the Brisbane of the universe”.