Temple Times Online Edition
    OCTOBER 7, 2004
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Bilingual pharmacy students work to understand and be understood

Deborah Karr, a specialist in English as a second language, listens to Hai Mai, a third-year student at the School of Pharmacy. Karr directs the language support program at the school.

Considering the critical nature of what pharmacists communicate about, good communications skills are essential for pharmacy school graduates, an increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse group. Wherever their career paths lead, they will be talking with others — patients, physicians and colleagues — about drugs. An unintelligible word or a mispronunciation could lead to a dangerous error.

To promote good communications skills among bilingual and international students, the School of Pharmacy has established a language support program under the direction of Deborah Karr, a specialist in teaching English as a second language. Temple’s program is one of only a handful at pharmacy schools nationwide.

In the United States, the number of Asian-American students in pharmacy school has increased by 40 percent since 1999 (from 6,414 to 8,991). At Temple’s School of Pharmacy, approximately 30 percent of students are Asian-American.

Hai Mai, 46, is a third-year Temple pharmacy student who has experienced a surge in confidence from working with Karr on improving his English language skills. Although he has been living in this country for nine years, he had never received formal English language training.

“His troubles centered on pronunciation, rhythm, syllable stress and intonation, primarily because the sound system of his native language, Vietnamese, differs greatly from English,” Karr said. “It’s primarily a monosyllabic language with fewer consonants than English and no consonant clusters, such as ‘th’ and ‘pr.’ As a result, Vietnamese speakers typically have trouble producing longer words in English and stressing syllables correctly. Because they tend to give each syllable an equal amount of stress and omit consonants at the ends of words, their speech is often abrupt.”

“When I first met Dr. Karr, she couldn’t understand me,” Mai said. “In the beginning, it was very difficult because she corrected everything I said. But that’s how I remembered. It’s very powerful to be corrected, and you can’t learn that from a book.”

Students either refer themselves or are referred by faculty members to Karr’s program.

Students have different needs depending on their native languages and levels of English-language skills. Some students are simultaneous bilinguals who have learned two languages growing up, often their native language and English. Others came to the United States while still in school and began learning English as a second language. While they are all very bright, they can be difficult for native English-speakers to understand.

“Most students know when they’re not intelligible and want help in improving their speech,” Karr said. “Many went through U.S. high schools and universities but did not receive enough English-language instruction. It is a very sensitive issue, because it can be mistakenly perceived as a defect or a weakness.

“I’m not here to make them lose their accent, but rather help them understand that their bilingualism is an asset to the healthcare profession and give them the opportunity to learn how to communicate effectively so that they can become successful professionals.”

Karr explained that English-speaking students from other countries might also be slightly unintelligible because of variations in English dialects. Private tutoring for six to eight weeks could solve such a problem.

“Some students tend to have a very fast rate of speech in their first language, which transfers into their English speech patterns,” Karr said. “Mix in their accents, and they’re doubly hard to understand. I teach them to slow down and speak in thought groups.”

At the other end of the spectrum are students who do not understand the basic articulation of vowel and consonant sounds in English and may need to take a series of one- or two-credit elective courses.

“Because learning a language is an ongoing, long-term process, students whose speech has ‘fossilized’ into incorrect grammar and speech patterns may need language support for two to three years,” she said.

Other factors that can contribute to miscommunication problems are culturally based. In some Asian societies, for instance, women are encouraged to speak softly. In this country, however, especially in a profession that deals with the public like pharmacy, it’s helpful to speak assertively.

For some students who are not familiar with American culture, colloquial language can be problematic. Students need to be able to hold informal, spontaneous conversations with patients and other healthcare professionals.

Karr’s classes and tutoring are tailored to actual pharmacy practice. Students practice medical and pharmaceutical terminology as well as role-play to gain competence in spontaneous situations such as patient counseling, physician/pharmacist telephone interaction and impromptu discussions on pharmacy-related topics. Some students also spend additional hours working with “conversation partners” from the communication sciences department in the College of Health Professions.

The goal is for students to learn how to articulate all vowel and consonant sounds in English and use the correct stress, rhythm and intonation. The students also develop an awareness of speech patterns and learn how to correct errors brought to their attention.

However, what is most difficult is developing fluency and accuracy in everyday speech, along with the communicative competency needed in professional settings.

Karr’s most successful students are active learners, those who embrace the language and integrate it into their daily lives. Mai said that he tries to listen and think in English and watches three hours of cable TV news each day. As a result, he now automatically thinks in English and doesn’t use the Vietnamese dictionary anymore.

Several students are now in their second year of the program, with a total of 22 participating in the program. All have reported an increase in their confidence levels when speaking and believe that this instruction will lead to more job opportunities after graduation.

“My goal is to help our bilingual students become communicatively competent individuals who are seen and see themselves as legitimate professionals in any career track they choose to pursue upon graduation,” Karr said.

“I can express my ideas and my opinion and am not scared to speak to Americans anymore,” Mai said. “Every day I get more confident. My son, who grew up in the U.S., is very impressed with my progress.”

Karr also works with international and bilingual students at the College of Health Professions and in the First Year Writing Program in the College of Liberal Arts.

- By Eryn Jelesiewicz