Learning the language of nursing

Program helps international students with medical vernacular

Gi Young Kim worked as a tour guide in his native South Korea until an accident sent him plunging into the Indian Ocean, dangerously close to the boat’s propeller. After that experience, he wanted to do something important with his life.

"I can see how nursing is important. You're taking care of people and dealing with their lives," said Kim, ADN, RN.
Inspired by a retired nurse who treated needy children, Kim  saved his money, came to America on an F-1 student visa and enrolled in  Georgia Perimeter College's nursing program.

“It was difficult to go to nursing school, because my English wasn’t that good and I wasn’t very comfortable talking to Americans,” Kim said. “When I started classes, I felt like I was learning English and Latin at the same time but I got a lot of help. The faculty was awesome.”

Kim and other international nursing students at Georgia Perimeter have benefited from a language support group, as part of the school’s nursing tutorial lab.

“We attract a lot of international students on our Clarkston campus and that’s reflected in our nursing program as well,” said Jeanette A. Crawford, RN, MSN, associate professor and director of the nursing tutorial lab.

"Medical terminology can be difficult for anyone. But for students, such as Gi Kim, whose first language is not English, such terminology can be truly challenging," Crawford said.
Seeing a need at the school, Diane White, dean of the school of health sciences, secured a grant for a multidisciplinary language support group.

Crawford and tutorial nursing instructor Becky Craig, MN, Ph.D., worked with ESL (English as a second language) professor Rose Camalo-Hernandez to create study guides and worksheets  to help international nursing students.

“Dr. Camalo-Hernandez read the entire 'Fundamentals of Nursing’ guide, pulling out concepts and vocabulary that could be confusing to non-English-speaking students,” Crawford said.

Craig and Crawford invited international  students to meet once or twice a week for extra study sessions.

“The idea was for them to practice reading, listening, speaking and writing the material they are learning,” Crawford said. “We do role-playing, practice test-taking, go over terminology and practice giving and taking reports.”

Students take turns reading sample test questions and discussing the answers. They look at the medical definition of terms such as ventilation, circulation, erosion, and the nuances of words like pain, rest, mobility or grief. For example, a nurse needs to ask and understand whether a patient’s pain is acute or chronic,  because that determines the course of treatment.

The department also purchased Mango Languages, a program that helps students improve their English vocabulary and  pronunciation. Some students have a better command of the language than others, but speak with a heavy accent.

“I believe that the way we have addressed the needs of international nursing students is unique in Georgia,” Craig said.

Small group support

Craig encourages students to find an English-speaking study partner, because research has shown that it improves outcomes.

“I also tell them to explain the concepts to someone in their own language. If they can do that, they are more likely to be able to translate it into English and do the critical thinking that nursing requires,” Craig said.

The support group  includes students from Nigeria, Peru, Korea, Vietnam, Ghana, Haiti, Cameroon, Israel, the Ukraine and other countries.

“One of the values of being in a small group is that students feel more secure about speaking up. They don’t feel intimidated because they can’t say something right,” Craig said. “They form bonds and help each other through the program.”

The instructors learn a lot as well, Crawford said. Her invitation for students to meet  for a potluck lunch met with blank stares, until she realized they didn’t know what “potluck” meant.

“You don’t realize how many idioms and how much jargon there is in health care. We refer to 'cabbages,’ which stands for coronary artery bypass graft, for instance,” she said. “International students have an uphill road learning to take notes and write reports at the speed which is required of nurses.”

Next year Craig  plans to continue helping current students as they move into medical/surgical classes.

While there is no scientific data yet to back it up,  "generally speaking, those who have taken advantage of the program have been successful in nursing school," Craig said.
Retention and graduation rates have been strong.

“We had 13 out of 16 international students graduate in the first group. Of the 14 that we have now, only one isn’t on track to graduate,” Crawford said.

Gi Young Kim earned an associate degree in nursing  last May and is practicing at a physician’s office that serves Korean and American patients. He wants to start work on his bachelor’s degree next year.

“I’m 100 percent positive that this program was really helpful,” he said. “It gave me a lot more confidence.”