Medical Terminology for Non-English Speakers

Students from around the world yearn to attend top-tier medical schools in the United States and Canada. And it's no question as to why! These schools offer medical education unparalleled throughout the world.

However, language can sometimes be a barrier. Here are some useful tips for learning complicated medical terminology, if you speak a language other than English.

It's All Latin (Or Greek) To Me

Most medical terminology has roots in Latin or Greek. If you have the time and money, take a course or two in either language. You don't need to become fluent, but understanding the basic structure of each language can help you parse out unfamiliar terms when you come across them.

Many free language apps, like Duolingo or MemRise, can help you learn these languages if you don't have time in your formal course schedule. You usually only need to spend ten to twenty minutes a day on these apps, so they're an easy way to acquire mastery.

Get Visual

Flashcards are a time-tested way to study unique new terms, and the human body is nothing if not visual.

Get a stack of blank 3x5 index cards (or cut card stock or white paper to the right size). On one side, write the term in question. On the other, draw a visual example. If you have a multiple-element structure, such as a cell or bone joint, color in the relevant aspect.

For instance, you might copy the same sketch of a cell, and color in the cell wall, mitochondria, nucleus, and cytoplasm on different flashcards. Alternatively, a bone joint flashcard might have the tendon, bone, and muscle colored separately on each individual card.

The benefit to this practice is twofold. For one, the simple act of creating this study tool helps cement these words in your consciousness. Then, you just need to study, by yourself or with a partner, to achieve mastery.


Mnemonic is a fancy word for a memorization technique. It means drawing parallels between two unique items to create a structure in your brain.

For instance, a popular mnemonic for remembering stroke symptoms is FAST: Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty, and Time. This mnemonic helps you remember the important symptoms of a stroke, while also reminding you with "Time" that the best stroke outcomes rely on quick treatment.

When you come across a tricky medical problem to memorize, turn it into a mnemonic. The list of spinal anesthesia agents can become a sentence: Little Boys Prefer Toys, standing in for lidocaine, bupivacaine, procaine, and tetracaine.

The best mnemonics are personal. So experiment with this technique, and find the ones which work best for you.

Learn While Playing

Work is work and play is play, but what if you could combine both? Fortunately, there's a whole host of cool apps available which help you learn medical terminology while earning points, leveling up, and otherwise having fun. Some of these apps are free, but the premium (and therefore most useful) features often cost money. A few cool ones are:

Anatomy Cards Anatomicus: Leaning into the flashcard idea above, this app is specifically designed to test your knowledge of medical anatomy. Eight separate systems are intricately detailed to help you master each one.

Learn Medical Terminology: If you can't afford a formal language course, this is like a Duolingo for doctors!

Medical Quiz Questions and Answers: Covering everything from the basic to the advanced, this app is a fun game to play on a lunch break or while waiting in line. Answer a series of multiple-choice questions to test your medical knowledge and expertise.

Prognosis: Imagine you're already a practicing physician, and evaluate over 400 different patient presentations over a wide variety of specialties before coming to the right diagnosis. Each case comes with a helpful diagnostic reasoning and key points to help guide you to the right answer. This app in particular helps you achieve medical English fluency.

Next Level

These free games can be great to start with, but once you start preparing for serious tests like the USMLE Step 1, you'll need a little extra boost. Learning individual words and phrases is helpful, but now you've got to study them in context: how complicated medical terminology fits into full sentences, both in textbooks and tests. 

A good practice is to try to sign up for an online learning platform, where you can get free access most of its feature and it can give you a better understanding of medical terminologies. 

If you're still struggling, go to your campus' tutoring center for help. They usually can connect you with study resources, tutors, and other forms of guidance. Another good option is reaching out to your fellow students and forming a study group. This works great if you're all English learners together. If you take this route, instead of getting an in-person tutor, a website-based service like Lecturio might be the most helpful. This can keep your group on track by ensuring you're all learning the same thing together (and thus can better help each other if one person gets stuck). Even if you're studying on your own, look for a structured system with good feedback. 

Alternatively, you can sharpen you medical terminology study by preparing 


There's no substitute for hard work. As an aspiring doctor, you must prepare to study hard in order to master medical English. But the good news is that the apps and tools listed above are specifically geared to help you reach success in your chosen profession. No one can go it alone, so ask for help and use the available tools.


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