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An English Class Brings Friendship, Laughter for Chinese Medical Professionals

By Maddy Schaffer  July 31, 2017
 

BROOKLINE, Mass. – Mandy Ma had no idea how hard it would be to learn to speak English. She can't understand why the “L” in “could” is not pronounced.
 
Sitting in a beige, dimly lit conference room,she asked her English teacher, “Why?” “English is an illogical language,” her instructor, Adam Szot, responded. “We don't ask why.”
 
Ma, a Guangzhou native, attends free bi-weekly English classes geared towards Chinese medical professionals training in the Boston area. The class is sponsored by Massachusetts Medical International Corporation (MMI, a company founded in 2015 that provides cutting-edge disease treatment and instructs international healthcare professionals. The class is designed not only to teach English, but to combat the isolating effects of language barriers.
 
Ma, 38, arrived in America to conduct science search at Brigham and Women’s hospital. In China, she is a practicing obstetrician. Ma is what linguists describe as a  “deaf and mute” English speaker. She arrived in America able to write in English and comprehend the written word, but was unable to speak it.
 
Ma is not alone. In 2013, 62% of the United States’ Chinese immigrant population reported “limited English proficiency,” according to a report conducted by the Migration PolicyInstitute.
 
To help solve this issue, MMI began to offer free English classes last year as a way to help visiting medical professionals communicate with doctors, said MMI Special Assistant Lisa Zhang, who is also the wife of George Wu, the program’s founder.
 
For Ma, being able to speak English would not only help at work, but in her everyday life.
 
When she came to America about two months ago,Ma couldn’t figure out Boston’s public transportation system. When she asked commuters for help, the language barrier made it hard for her to understand.
Szot addressed this problem which he said is a common one for foreigners, in class.
“Sometimes I will have a lesson planned out weeks in advance, but then I realize the class actually needs to learn something else,” Szot said.
 
He creates many activities in the 90-minute class for students to utilize their skills.  Szot often describes popular Boston activities- like the New England Aquarium and the Arnold Arboretum - and informs students on the quickest way to get there via bus or train.
 
The class, which typically has around 20students, also serves its more obvious purpose: to teach English.
 
Some activities are meant to facilitate casual conversations one might have at work, like a recent two person exercise where one partner asked, “What are you going to do this weekend?” and the other had to respond with concrete, thought out,yet realistic plans. Others are geared towards medical terminology: students were asked to act as either a “journalist” or “fitness consultant,” and ask their partners what exercises they could do to work certain muscle groups. Then Szot randomly picks a group to present their conversation to the class.
 
The goal of these exercises, as well as the presentations, is to “help students improve their response time to basic questions,” Szot said.
 
Szot also helps students build vocabularies, and every Wednesday, he teaches them about American conversational norms.
 
A recent lesson on physical exercise revealed a difference between Chinese and American cultures when a student stated, “if you don’t exercise, you get fat.”
 
“Yes, but don’t say people are fat. They don’t like that very much,” Szot responded.
 
“So,” the student asked, “what do you say to someone who is fat?”


Szot’s answer: “You don’t say anything.”
 
That’s not to say the students are oblivious to American culture. The class is incredibly varied: some students have been here for over twenty years, while others moved a month ago. But many of the students are up to speed on American culture.
 
When a student mistakenly said he liked to swim in a pool when he actually meant the ocean, another student laughed as she likened the situation to “fake news,” a controversialterm recently popularized by Donald Trump which refers to fabricated, maliciously written news stories. The reference was met with laughter from the rest of the class.
 
The friendly, inviting dynamic the class shares is a comfort for many students.  
When someone doesn’t understand a term, others are happy to translate it to Chinese. After class, students discuss weekend plans, and can be seen waiting for the bus together, laughing and talking about their days.
 
 
This is not unintentional: another purpose of the class is to let visiting professionals make friends who are having similar experiences, Zhang said. “It can be isolating,” for foreigners in America, she said.
 
Ma has made many friends in class. On weekends, they like to cook scrambled eggs together and visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Her favorite piece there is a Tiffany stained glass window, depictingkelly-green parakeets against a lilac sky, peering into a multicolored fish bowl.
 
Because of its welcoming atmosphere, the class has transitioned from a medical class to one that teaches more conversational English. “Last year, about 95 percent of the class were doctors,” said Fang Ji, who volunteers in the class and acts as somewhat of a translator.
 
“This year, there are a lot more non-doctors and new students,” Ji said.
 
But the comradery isn't just among the students.  Their teacher is part of the community, too.
 
When Szot got married, many of his past and present students showered him with wedding gifts. “People really like Adam,” said Ji. “He helps them overcome language barriers, but he also becomes family.”
 
When Ma goes back to Guangzhou, she’ll take an expansive vocabulary, ranging from clam chowder to Arnold Schwarzenegger, with her. She will also return with fond memories of the friends she’s made.
 
English may be an illogical language, but Ma’s making sense of American life, one class at a time.

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