Learning a Foreign Language in a Foreign Land

At our pre-departure Fulbright orientation, we had a stimulating lecture on ‘your identity abroad’. I was fascinated by the conversation that ensued but did not realize that it would apply to me directly. The racial categories South Africa were different than any other country I had experienced before. According to the 2011 Census, South Africans were categorized as ‘Black African’ at 80.2%, ‘White’ at 8.4%, ‘Coloured’ (multiracial) at 8.8%, ‘Indian’ at 2.5%, and ‘Other’ at 0.5%.

When people saw me, they quickly categorized me as ‘Coloured’. When they heard me speak, my accent made it was clear that I was a foreigner. And when I finally told them I was Indian, they didn’t believe me. Before last year, I never thought that critically about my ethnicity, my identity, and what it meant to me until it was challenged.

It wasn’t until others began to categorize me into groups, that I realized identifying as Indian American woman was essential to who I am and what I stand for. To me, Cape Agulhas, the point at which the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean, isn’t just a location, it is a reflection.

“To me, Cape Agulhas, the point at which the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean, isn’t just a location, it is a reflection.”

 

My decision to take a beginners’ Xhosa class at the University of Cape Town in my free time was personal and professional. In South Africa, the majority of the patients I recruited for research spoke Xhosa and had notoriously tricky names. As I began my research project, I felt strongly about correctly pronouncing names. There is great value in communicating with people in a way that makes them feel respected.

As someone whose name has an Indian origin, I can recall many occasions when my name was mispronounced. To avoid this, I created a nickname. Although this may seem trivial, by responding to an Americanized name that was easier to pronounce, I struggled with feeling a loss of identity. In Cape Town, I made a heartfelt effort to pronounce patient names correctly and when I failed (the many, many times) I took the time to learn from them. This not only helped me develop my Xhosa skills but also helped me build rapport with them.

Communication is an essential part of a career in medicine, most noticeably between a patient and physician. As a physician, earning trust and showing respect to patients is fundamental to building meaningful connections with others during their most vulnerable times. Equipped with newfound Xhosa skills, I found ways to develop trust quickly with patients despite the transnational differences. I learned that small gestures such as learning a new language could intensely impact the patient experience. Learning a foreign language in a foreign land helped me transition from a foreigner to a friend.

“Learning a foreign language in a foreign land helped me transition from a foreigner to a friend.”

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komal-kumar

Komal Kumar

Komal Kumar obtained her MPH in Epidemiology & Biostatistics from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a researcher, public health advocate, and a 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar to South Africa.

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