Student group helps non-English speakers communicate more effectively

Dec. 1, 2012

Medical terminology can often seem like a foreign language but for those in the field of medicine for whom English is their second language, communicating at work and in their daily life can be an especially daunting task. For those at Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Medical Center who struggle with this, graduate students at BCM's Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences have developed the Enhancing English Communication Skills group.

The group started under the guidance of Dr. Gayle Slaughter, senior associate dean of graduate education and diversity at BCM's Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Now under the leadership of BCM graduate students Stephen Murray and Tabassum Majid and Rice University student Katie Bachman, the program allows people for whom English is their second language to practice their skills with one another, along with some structured teaching and activities.

Class activities

Depending on the day, somewhere between four and 30 members attend the sessions, which are held Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays every week. Activities vary and can range from practicing tongue twisters to playing a game of Jeopardy! with categories such as irregular plurals and prepositions. Group members are sometimes tasked with giving a one-minute speech on a specific topic and are then given feedback.

Although about 90 percent of the class consists of postdoctoral students at BCM, group members also come from the Methodist Hospital, Rice University, Texas Children's Hospital and the Children's Nutrition Research Center. Many group members' spouses also attend. Countries of origin include various countries in Asia and Latin America as well as Iran, Sweden and Russia.

Murray, who has no formal training in teaching English, is the president of the Association for Graduate Student Diversity at BCM. He enjoys seeing group members improve in their ability to communicate and sees that with more practice, they gain confidence in their spoken skills.

Practical experience

Each of the leaders commit a significant amount of time to the group, including planning activities for the meetings and even meeting with group members individually to practice for interviews or look over papers or emails for grammar.

Workshops are held every other month or so that focus on topics that both English and non-native English speakers find useful, such as how to give a presentation.

Hongmei Xu has been a member of the group since it first began this summer, and is truly appreciative of the time that Murray, Majid and Bachman commit to working with group members.

"I know that it is not always easy or convenient for them to assist us and yet they give so very generously of their time, knowledge and patience," she said. "I have learned so very much from them. They correct my pronunciation and grammar. They teach us how to use correct vocabulary to communicate with others."

For many members in the group, it's their only opportunity to practice their English, and they find it extremely useful in their professional and personal lives.