Learning German to Help People - Goethe-Institut

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German for Professionals
Learning German to Help People

Various health professionals
The German healthcare system is dependent on skilled personnel from abroad. | © Adobe Stock

The latest annual report by the German Expert Council on Integration and Migration clearly shows that the German healthcare system can’t function without skilled personnel from abroad. What language skills do doctors, nurses and other health professionals need to communicate effectively in the workplace?

Besides expertise and technical know-how, anyone working in health care needs a wide range of language skills. How do nurses introduce themselves to patients, for example? How do they write up reports on treatment or nursing? How do they go about gaining patients’ trust and developing an understanding of their needs, establishing a certain standing in the team and maybe even making friends at work? After examining a patient, doctors may have to explain a diagnosis to them, write a note to a patient’s general practitioner, discuss findings with the senior physician and perhaps engage in small talk with colleagues during breaks, in which dialectal and colloquial words and expressions are bound to be used. Each of these situations involves its own communication challenges. “When a doctor greets a patient by asking, ‘So, how’s it going at the moment?’, the patient may reply, ‘At the moment, fine,’ the way she would in an everyday conversation,” says Dr Theresa Schnedermann from the Leibniz Institute for the German Language. “But when she proceeds to describe serious complaints like shortness of breath, this may seem paradoxical at first.” Schnedermann’s dissertation was largely about medical terminology. And as the coordinator of the German Research Foundation’s (DFG) “Linguistics and Medicine” network, she and two colleagues recently put out an anthology on the subject.

Language prep for healthcare professionals

In 2014, the German Conference of Health Ministers published a paper on “Benchmarks for validation of German language skills required to practise academic health professions”. It stipulates how doctors – as well as e.g. psychotherapists and pharmacists – who have not attended a German-speaking school of general education for at least ten years or have not successfully completed three years of professional training (in medicine etc.) conducted in German can prove they have the requisite German skills. Doctors have to pass the German Medical Association’s Fachsprachprüfung, a language test for aspiring medical practitioners. “But such a test can’t cover the wide range of different kinds of communication doctors are confronted with on the job any more than a preparatory language course can,” observes Regine Grosser. “You need years of language practice for that.” Grosser grades professional language exams at the Berlin Medical Association. She also gives courses in communication for doctors at the Charité International Academy in Berlin and preps foreign doctors for the Brandenburg Medical Association’s medical (theory) exam at Brandenburg’s Theodor Fontane Medical School.

In the past, to practise their profession in this country, other health professionals, e.g. nurses, have had to prove B2-level German language proficiency as per the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. But this general language test doesn’t cover the language skills required in their professions. So, in another benchmark paper, the Conference of Health Ministers in 2019 agreed to create different uniform standards for each of the professional groups concerned. These standards are applied in job-specific language tests like the “Goethe-Test PRO Pflege” (B2), the “telc Deutsch B1 B2 Pflege” and a language test developed by passage gGmbH for the nursing sector.
A doctor talking to an elderly patient Talking to patients requires language sensitivity. | © Adobe Stock

Training German language skills abroad and in Germany

For years now, the Goethe-Instituts and various other institutions have been involved in a wide range of different German language training projects for health professionals. The Goethe-Instituts in Vietnam, for example, have been working with a Berlin hospital operator for seven years on a specialized language programme called “Vivantes Pflegeprojekt”. A great many establishments in Germany as well provide language training to qualify immigrants for work in the healthcare sector. The same goes for our German-speaking neighbours: The Austrian Integration Fund is currently working on a “German for Nursing” online course that’s free of charge for anyone interested. Regine Grosser is also involved in putting together and writing for the course: “It will impart a wide range of skills,” promises the expert, “including everything from technical and transfer language to communicating with coworkers, relatives and care-dependent patients and writing up nursing reports.” For language teachers, portals like these offer a wealth of material and information to use in class. And for linguists like Theresa Schnedermann, the language challenges facing foreign health professionals remain a multifaceted field of research.