The language of instruction


  • Formerly: Department of Family Medicine, College of Medicine, University of Sharjah, Sharjah, UAE

Dr Deen M Mirza, Department of Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, United Arab Emirates University, PO Box 17666, Al Ain, UAE. Tel: 00 971 3 713 7574; Fax: 00 971 3 767 2022; E-mail:

Editor – I found the articles ‘Thinking the post-colonial in medical education’ by Bleakley et al.1 and ‘Neo-colonialism versus sound globalisation policy in medical education’ by Karle et al.2 were particularly relevant to our teaching in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These articles discussed differences in cultural values that can affect a particular region’s understanding of professionalism, as compared with the Western definition.

Some of these differences relate particularly to language. In the University of Sharjah, UAE, an Australian curriculum has been imported for use with students of predominantly Arab backgrounds. This curriculum includes an extensive course on communication and history-taking skills, running across a whole semester. The language of instruction for the medical degree is English and so the lectures and role-plays that make up this course are all conducted in English.

However, most of the patients with whom students will come into contact in their clinical years will communicate in Arabic, not English. There seems to be an inherent assumption that students who are native Arabic speakers will be able to learn history-taking skills in English and then translate the questions they use into Arabic on the wards. However, some of the Arab students say they do not feel confident in taking histories in Arabic at the start of their clinical years.

This emphasises the need for students to practise their history-taking and communication skills in the language they will use with patients on the wards. If students are unable to do this, we run the risk of producing students who live up to Western standards on paper, but are clinically less effective doctors in their local settings. This curriculum shift might be aided if medical schools were to officially designate a specific ‘language of patient communication’ in addition to the official language of instruction.