A medical student writes: What the language debate misses and why translating MBBS books into Hindi is easier said than done

Transition from a public Hindi school in Jhalawar to the University College of Medical Science in New delhi was a daunting task for Dr. Sanjay Patidar. Never did the village boy – he passed the AIPMT exam with an All India ranking of 93 – think his career would be dictated by his lack of English proficiency. He confused words such as “court” and “coarse”; “envelop” and “violate”. So when his teachers asked him about the path of the radial nerve, or what wraps around the axon, all he could do was stare at them blankly, I- he said.

My classmate used to cut his sleep to watch Hollywood movies or web series to learn new English words. He then reviewed them with subtitles to learn the meaning of these words. Even when he knew the answer to a question, he never dared to utter it for fear of being mocked. Both were pleased with the government’s decision to introduce Hindi as the language of instruction instead of English in the central institutions of higher learning.

The unveiling of the Hindi editions of the first professional MBBS books by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Bhopal has, however, sparked anti-Hindi agitations, with the opposition, particularly in the South, claiming the move is nothing more than a poll gimmick. For many in the medical fraternity, still reeling from the anxiety of yet another similar, abrupt announcement – ​​the switch of the exam model from NEET to NeXt – the decision is not a welcome one.

Proponents of this initiative cite examples from China, Japan, Ukraine, Russia and Norway – countries where the official languages ​​are the sole language of instruction in all technical and non-technical courses. If they can do it, why can’t we, they argue, especially since it is an established fact that teaching in a student’s native language is effective for learning. That would be a sure path for India to become a superpower, so what’s stopping us? The fact is that these arguments can steer feelings, but they are too simplistic ways to approach a complex problem.

For one thing, these “facts” are not entirely true. Fifty-two medical schools, out of a total of 170 medical schools in mainland China, whose graduates can take the USMLE (the entrance examination to practice in the United States), teach in Chinese and English. There has been a surge in the number of parents interested in enrolling their children – at just three years old – in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

It is unwise to compare the status of Hindi to that of Chinese or German, given the diversity of India. Moreover, Hindi, or any other vernacular for that matter, offers far fewer resources to support the younger population seeking employment. Learning English therefore comes with a promise of roti, kapda, makaan (food, clothing, accommodation). ‘ concern for English-speaking schools – causing them to refuse free money and food and admit their children to mediocre, mediocre English schools instead.

In terms of higher education, English is a great leveler, allowing dialogue with the rest of the world to be pursued. Medicine, however evidence-based, is constantly evolving with the introduction of new research. Dealing with cases sometimes requires consulting multiple books, research papers, and journal articles, for which a solid translation system must be established before we can even begin to think about phasing out English.

The people involved in the translation process talked about two things when talking to me. First, instead of “translation”, the books were transliterated. The medical terminology remains the same; the sentences have only been translated for ease of reading. That too, in the most common dialect of Hindi. Second, these books should be used as “bridging books”, not as substitutes for English books designed to solve the initial problems that students are forced to face.

Leafing through the pages of Vishram Singh Anatomy: upper limb and thorax, I found no significant difference between the original and transliterated texts. Instead, in some sections, the paragraphs ended up getting much denser with the English names of the subject matter in parentheses. The transliteration is also poor; the book reads like a cheap quality guide.

The initial announcement also does not take into account the necessary infrastructure. There has been no clarity as to whether or how these translations will be incorporated as reading material, and how they will evolve or change over time. Whether standard books like Harrison and Robbins are also translated is anyone’s guess. Translating these volumes once would not be enough because new editions every three to five years incorporate significant changes. Teachers and other teaching staff should also be trained. And most importantly, what about medical lectures, the staple food of a medical student? Would they be held in Hindi in the future?

The ad appears to be for the tail only, not the whole elephant. Offering additional evening classes like AIIMS does, Delhi might have been a better substitute given that the strength of students who struggle with English is around one to two percent of the whole lot. Also, no strict distinction exists between Hindi and non-Hindi states as most institutions have a portion of the seats which are filled by pan-Indian entrance examination. How then can we assume that a Tamil Nadu student at AIIMS, Delhi would not want to study in Tamil?

While basing our argument only on language, we often forget that Chinese healthcare is self-sufficient in research and protocols, or that Germany has primary resources available in its own language. At present, we should focus on the development of primary resources. Our medical industry is far too nascent to talk about language.

The writer is a medical student and writer

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