Munich Experimental Clinic (MEC)

A conversation between the Director of the clinic (D) and a new doctor (N)

If I ridicule the Follies and Corruptions of a Court, a Ministry, or a Senate, are they not amply paid by Pensions, Titles, and Power, while I expect, and desire no other reward than that of laughing with a few friends in a Corner?

                                                    Jonathan Swift, Intelligencer

N: Guten Tag, Herr Direktor! Wie geht es Ihnen?

D: Gut, danke. But, please, letís switch to English. You know, this is an "English only" zone.

N: Oh, sorry. Iím still adapting to this environment. This is my first day in Munich Experimental Clinic. Everything is so new to me here.

D: Of course, it takes some time to adjust. However, if you are not resistant to change, you will feel completely at home in several weeks. Now tell me about your first impressions.

N: Well, I find many things quite puzzling. This place is different from all the hospitals Iíve seen before.

D: We are aware of that. And proud, too. This clinic is unique.

N: Iím afraid youíre right. May I ask you a question?

D: Sure.

N: Why do the doctors talk to patients in English? I mean, why not in German?

D: Itís all because of one dream.

N: I beg your pardon.

D: My dear colleague, let me remind you that dreams have frequently given rise to ingenious theories that revolutionize human understanding.

N: Gee, I always thought that the advancement of human knowledge was more the result of thinking than of sleeping. But please go ahead, I wonít interrupt you.

D: Ten years ago Dr. Gross, the founder of this clinic and its present owner, had that captivating dream about how to combine medical care and language learning. He was haunted by that dream so intensely that in the end he decided to spend a lot of money to turn that grand vision into reality. And indeed, here it is, Munich Experimental Clinic (MEC), entering the fifth year of this glorious medico-educational experiment.

N: Tell me more about the dream. Youíve gotten me interested.

D: As with all other great discoveries, Dr. Grossís basic idea is very simple. In order to improve oneís English proficiency one has to speak English as much, and as often, as possible. Now, in what situation are people most motivated to speak? The answer is obvious: when they are sick! Then they have an absolutely compulsive need to talk about their health problems to doctors. Therefore, if they are allowed to do this only in English, it will give them an ideal opportunity to raise their speaking ability. Everyone knows that there is nothing sick people enjoy more than complaining about their ailments; so the only thing you have to do for the purpose of language learning is to deprive them of the option to use their mother tongue.

N: Now what if some patients start to speak German?

D: Itís easy. The doctors will either not understand them (most doctors came from the US or Canada) or else they will pretend not to. Naturally, patients are aware that this is all for their own good. This is the only clinic in the world where one can simultaneously receive medical care and learn English. We call it "the illness-based approach to language learning".

N: I donít want to appear stupid, but I wonder what happens if a patientís English is very poor, or if he doesnít speak English at all.

D: Good question. Our intention at the beginning was to accept only patients with TOEFL scores over 500. Unfortunately, for unknown reasons the English ability of our patients turned out to be much lower than expected. Some of them find it extremely difficult to describe their problems in intelligible English. Nevertheless, we decided we cannot permit any exceptions. For if we allowed the "linguistically challenged" patients to use German, it would start the domino effect and the whole system would break down. I hope you understand that we have to be strict about this.

N: Hmm, I guess. But Iím still kind of worried about the fate of those "low-proficiency patients".

D: Actually, some of them are doing quite fine. If they only make a genuine effort in their rudimentary English, the doctor can often get some clue about what might be going on. For instance, if a patient says "I had a sea-sick, throwing out much times", an experienced doctor will immediately guess that the person had a fit of nausea and was repeatedly vomiting. Then itís a piece of cake to prescribe the medication.

N: In English, I presume.

D: Of course.

N: Do patients sometimes misunderstand doctorís instructions about what they should do?

D: Not too often. You see, they know itís of vital importance for them to get the instructions right, since their own health is at stake. Therefore, they will struggle very hard to understand English. Any mistake can be harmful or even literally painful.

N: Can you give an example?

D: Certainly. It happened just recently that a patient was told to put fifteen drops of a medicine in his tea every day, but the poor guy misheard this as "fifty" drops. Naturally, we had to pump his stomach, but he said that after that experience he would never forget the difference between "fifteen" and "fifty" for the rest of his life. We can achieve miracles with the patientsí linguistic memory this way.

N: I would think that this makes people terribly frightened of making mistakes.

D: Oh yes, definitely. But at the same time itís impossible to imagine a situation where oneís motivation to improve oneís English ability would be stronger. And according to Dr. Gross, high motivation is the key to successful language learning.

N: I see. I would like to ask some more questions, if youíre not too busy right now.

D: Iím always extremely busy, but my duty is to help you understand how MEC operates. Our policy here is to explain everything in the first several weeks, so that people donít ask any questions later.

N: Why are patients always approached by two doctors?

D: Actually, only one of them is the doctor. The other is an English teacher.

N: Are you joking?

D: No, Iím not. Every doctor at MEC gets an English teacher as his language partner. The partnerís duty is to help the doctor to find the best way to approach the patient and overcome his language deficiency. But let me emphasize that there is no strict division of these two roles. The doctor and the language partner work as a team, and each one is in his own manner in charge of both the patientsí recovery and language improvement.

N: Is this why they both have the same title: "Fellow of Medico-Linguistic Aid"?

D: Exactly. As I just said, medical care and language learning are so integrated that it would be against the MEC philosophy to insist on a clear separation of the two roles. The best indication that a teamís work is truly co-operative is when patients themselves cannot guess who is the physician and who is the language specialist. We are particularly proud of one recent case that we set up as an example for emulation. A world-famous cardiologist from Canada had his wife as the language partner, but most patients actually believed that his wife was the doctor!

N: Itís truly fascinating. I think it will take me some time to digest all this information. To tell you frankly, it all looks very much like a strange dream, but somehow the dream never comes to an end. There is no awakening.

D: Itís because in this case the dream became real. I mean, Dr. Grossís dream, of course.

N: I guess youíre right. While talking to you I pinched myself several times but to no avail, MEC stays mercilessly real. Now, just one more thing. And I must admit Iím a bit embarrassed to ask this question.

D: Why?

N: Well, itís something I heard about MEC that at first I simply couldnít believe. But now after all the things I heard from you Iím not so sure what to think anymore. The only thing Iím pretty sure about is that in this environmnet you wonít get very far by relying on common sense.

D: Please ask, we have nothing to hide.

N: I was told that at MEC even a person with no medical degree can be hired as doctor. Surely, this never happened, did it?

D: As a matter of fact it did. Itís an exception that proves the rule.

N: Iím not sure I understand.

D: We have a rule that doctors at MEC must have a medical degree. However, if I think someone would be a good doctor although the person unfortunately never studied medicine, I donít hesitate to break the rule. There is no point in being too formalistic about these things. Iím not one of those who judge people only by their diplomas.

N: I see. But some people object to the fact that itís actually your own wife whom you hired as ophthalmologist in this "non-formalistic" manner. Allegedly she doesnít have the usual academic qualifications. Or does she?

D: Iím glad you asked that question. A lot of gossip has been spread around about me and my wife, and itís all the result of human envy. My wife is one of the best doctors at MEC.

N: So are you saying that in fact she did have the proper academic training?

D: Well, no, itís a bit more complicated. Itís true that my wife never attended a medical school, but there are other things that make her absolutely qualified for the job.

N: Iím quite curious to hear what that could be. Is she a veterinarian?

D: Are you making fun of me?

N: No, not at all. Iím just trying to guess what kind of explanation you will give.

D: Well, first, as a high school senior my wife attended a 2-week course in first aid, and later for several months she had a part-time job helping the nurses in a local hospital. Besides, her uncle had a herbal medicine store, so she learned a lot from him.

N: Iím impressed. But how come she was assigned to the field of ophthalmology?

D: The justification is simple. Her long time hobby is photography, and it is common knowledge that there are important similarities between the camera and the human eye. Let me also add that 20 years ago she took a college course "Introduction to Optics" which is obviously very relevant here. Do you want me to continue?

N: No, please donít, this is quite enough. I already feel a bit dizzy. Before I leave, however, perhaps I should tell you something myself. This morning I talked to some doctors here, and they said that you and your wife reminded them of one very famous couple.

D: Pierre and Marie Curie, maybe?

N: Well, not exactly. The names mentioned were Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu.

D: I donít get it.

N: Let me remind you, the Romanian dictatorís wife has also made a spectacular career while he was in power. Her formal title was Comrade Academician Doctor Engineer Elena Ceausescu, although her education actually finished with the completion of the fourth grade.

D: My dear colleague, the only thing I can say to this is that itís really amazing how malicious some people can be. To compare my wife and me to the Ceausescu pair! Thatís utterly ridiculous. After all, neither of us speaks a single word of Romanian!