Friday, April 16, 2010

both a reassurance and a curse

When I went to take my written test for my learner's permit (probably a little less than a year ago), I saw this middle-aged guy at a computer testing station about two seats away from me with a book in his lap. Upon closer inspection, this book was a Myanmar to English/English to Myanmar dictionary. This poor guy was slogging through this test, word by word, flipping frantically through his dictionary trying to figure out what "merge" and "signal" meant in Myanmar before answering.

My first thought? Wow, that's rough. But if this Burmese guy who doesn't even speak English can pass his written driving test, surely I can too.

My second though? Wow, if this Burmese guy who doesn't even speak English passes the test and I don't, I am going to be extremely embarrassed.

As it was, I was probably just one question away from failing that written driving test. (Though to be fair, almost all the questions that I got wrong were related to various speed limits in various zones--couldn't I just look at the speed limit signs in real life?) But I passed. And I think about that Burmese guy sometimes still. I hope he passed too.

Anyway, the point of me writing this is because, well, obviously I'm taking the oral boards in a few days. And I'm not overly stressed about it, I think it will be fine, though of course occasionally, I will think, OMG OMG THE ORAL BOARDS OMG and I'll get a little anxious that I'll get nailed with the crazy obscure stem question about the quadriplegic achondroplastic dwarf newborn with mucopolysaccharidosis, and that my examiners will be a tag team known as "Bad Cop" and "Worse Cop." But several people have tried to calm me (and they said that this was the most comforting piece of reassurance, or at least perspective, that they themselves received before their oral boards) is that a good number of my co-test-takers are foreign nationals and actually don't speak English very well, so I, aside from being reasonably well-trained, at least have a huge advantage in the fact that I, you know, grew up speaking the language in which the exam is administered.

And that is a little reassuring, I suppose. But my second thought? Wow, if this Burmese guy who doesn't even speak English passes the oral boards and I don't, I'm going to be extremely embarrassed.

(Of course this is in no way to discredit those colleagues among us--my parents included, each Board Certified in their respective fields--who have tackled the extremely unruly language of English and managed to get through all the hurdles just as us native speakers have. I couldn't do what you have done. Bravo.)


  1. Anonymous4:40 PM

    Do you speak Chinese with your parents or just English ? Are you fluent? Is cal bilingual? Laura

  2. Interesting question about Cal from Laura. As a first-generation Chinese American who speaks English with my parents, I really really want my kids to know Mandarin better than I do.

    Good post, though. I think about all of my med school professors who trained in foreign countries but can teach the material in their native tongue and in English too. I have no idea how they're so capable translating Italian, German, Polish, Arabic, Korean, etc. in real-time.

  3. I speak Chinese with my parents, but Cal speaks English only. I wrestled with this one, and I know families where one parents spoke only one language to their kid while the other parent spoke only the other language, but in the end we just decided to go with what was easiest, which is both of us speaking English. I think I would have had a hard time speaking to Cal only in a language that Joe can't understand.

    I do regret not getting Cal (and Mack) in on the ground floor with respect to learning Chinese, though. It would be so easy for them to pick it up! (I actually learned to speak Chinese first before I learned to speak English, which I picked up when I started nursery school.)

  4. Good luck on your boards! My revelatory moment came during my oral-board-review session (OMG $$$ )...I considered that the first time pass rate was, say, 85% (ballpark). And we just kept doing practice scenarios at the front of the room IN FRONT OF EVERYONE, and I realized that I was probably less dumb than at least 15% of the others. Also the IN FRONT OF EVERYONE part was nervewracking, but after a couple days it kind of burned out my adrenals so I was less freaked on actual D-Day.

  5. Anonymous10:36 PM

    Good luck with your orals! Thanks for continuing to post when you could be doing so much more with your time, like refreshing your memory on how to treat people with multiple medical problems! lol

    Seriously, I am sure you will sail thru!

  6. Anonymous11:35 PM

    It's actually not too late for them to start learning Chinese! I'm sure you know how handy it is to be bilingual. :)

    Good luck with your orals!

  7. Anonymous12:59 AM

    Hey, I'm Burmese girl...born and raised, don't speak English before starting college in this country... currently almost done with med school here.... It's def do-able. I just need to kill the nerves before speaking out... and now, i'm quite comfortable with my oral presentations.

  8. Good luck on your oral boards!

  9. So, I just finished my neonatology boards (and of course I'm waiting on pins and needles for the results), but its strange not to have a next step. After I finished boards I felt like, what's next? for about a week. Anyway, that 85% pass rate is what kept me a little sane pre-test. And then it's over.

  10. Anonymous12:07 PM

    Good luck! My husband flies out to Atlanta to take the test on Monday. The examiners will be fresh out of the gates. And my husband's native tongue isn't English. Are the odds against him them? ;-) Ali

  11. Comment to Eric K: I would be willing to bet quite a lot of money that those professors don't speak English as a foreign language. They sound like it because of their accents, but in their heads, it's the same as speaking their native language. Us Europeans use English so much in daily life, including while studying, that we don't need to translate in our heads. We can think in English when needed :)

    Michelle, good luck with the boards!

  12. you will pass your boards. your english, from what i can read, is better than even 1st language speakers of english. wish you the best. :)