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Vol. XXXII No. 16, December 1-15, 2022

Can we please let medical education be in English?

-- by The Editor

The Health Minister of the Government of Tamil Nadu announced in October that textbooks for the first-year syllabus of MBBS are being prepared in the Tamil language and that once ready, and subject to approval from the Centre, the State will take steps to begin a Tamil medium college in Chennai for medicine. This is the latest in the language battle that is being fought across most States of India. While we are all for the preservation and propagation of the mother tongue and would probably be in the forefront if any other language is imposed over the entire nation, we do feel that this latest move in unwise in the extreme and would do with a reconsideration.

Chennai, and Tamil Nadu are uniquely positioned as far as the medicare industry is concerned. Ours is a status of leadership not just in India but across the world. It would be no exaggeration to say that Chennai is an international medical capital and destination. The city accounts for the bulk of India’s medical tourism income and therefore tops the national statistics on tourist footfalls – beating even the golden triangle of Delhi-Agra-Jaipur. It also remains one of the recruitment hotspots for the medical industry the world over and this includes doctors, paramedics and other staff. All of this, from which the State has benefited, has happened over almost two hundred years of investment in quality medical education, the building of Government and private institutions for healthcare and the State’s enviable record of public health services.

We agree that teaching medicine in Tamil in no way means a dilution of quality. But it does mean building a cadre of medical graduates who will be writing prescriptions and communicating in a language that is comprehended in just the State. Tamil is a classical language, but it is not an international tongue if you discount Sri Lanka and a couple of other countries in the Far East. How then does this affect our medical clientele from the rest of India and abroad? Quite badly indeed. Can you imagine a medical tourist trying to communicate with his doctors here when the technical language is completely alien? And what happens when the medical records go back with the patient to his/her home state or country? We are sure that this will be countered with the answer that translated reports will be provided. That is never going to be the same, is it? And it will be at the cost of additional labour – machines do translate but it has to be read even now by humans for it to make sense. Language translation algorithms are downright primitive as of now and cannot be trusted in a sensitive industry such as healthcare.

The Centre’s approval may not prove difficult to get – after all the party at the Centre is going all out in its efforts to get some of the States in which it is in power to begin medical teaching in the vernacular. The argument for this, and it is also touted here in Tamil Nadu – a rare instance where both warring factions speak the same way – is that those trained in the local language will go to fill the State’s healthcare cadres and therefore make up for what will be lost by way of the English-speaking graduates who will in all likelihood go abroad. This again is not strictly true. Not all English-speaking medicos go abroad and even among those that do, several do come back.

In summary, unlike other States, Tamil Nadu and Chennai stand to lose a lot more if they adopt such a myopic and parochial policy. It will affect one of the biggest revenue-earning industries of the region in the long run. Others do not even have a presence. The State may do well to reconsider and rise above language politics. There are several other avenues for Tamil promotion which may be taken up, a drive on faultless pronunciation for one, to start with.

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