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Moroccan Students Create a Tamazight Medical Guide to Bridge a Language Gap

Medical students in Morocco have created a Tamazight medical guide to help healthcare workers communicate with patients from Amazigh communities who do not speak Arabic.

The students, at Ibn Zohr University’s Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy, in Agadir, produced the guide, a manual of medical terminology in Tamazight, to bridge a language gap that affects the quality of doctor-patient communication and hence access to medical services.

Tamazight is a standardised version of the languages spoken by the indigenous Amazigh people of the Maghreb. Many older Amazigh people do not speak Arabic or Darija, a Moroccan form of Arabic.

Personal Experiences

“I worked in Tinghir, a Tamazight-speaking province in southeast Morocco. I used a nurse to help me communicate with the patients. So, we decided to find solutions to this problem.”

Youssef Khabbal A professor at Ibn Zohr University’s Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy

Youssef Khabbal, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy who supervised the students’ work on the guide, said the initiative was self-motivated, based on medical workers’ experiences of difficulties in communicating with Amazigh patients.

“I worked in Tinghir, a Tamazight-speaking province in southeast Morocco,” Khabbal told Al-Fanar Media. “I used a nurse to help me communicate with the patients. So, we decided to find solutions to this problem.”

Overcoming language barriers is an issue for health-care workers in many parts of the world. Khabbal pointed to similar efforts in Canada to prepare medical guide books that include local languages and dialects. He also cited experiences in Germany, where manuals in different languages were developed to communicate with refugees.

Camélia Reinhart, a fifth-year student at the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy in Agadir and a member of the Tamazight guidebook’s preparation team, said the students also had encountered difficulties communicating with patients.

“We were convinced of this initiative’s feasibility because we experienced this communication problem firsthand as students, while performing clinical training at the Hassan 2 Regional Hospital Center in Agadir,” she said.

The center is frequented by Tamazight-speaking patients from different parts of the Souss-Massa-Draa region around Agadir, and from southern Morocco.

“We used to ask our colleagues who speak Tamazight for help,” said Reinhart. “This is unfortunate, because we have to listen to patients and accurately understand their complaints and needs. Otherwise, we will not be able to provide them with the necessary medical assistance.”

The Idea’s Birth

Reinhart, whose mother is of Amazigh origin, thought of a medical guide in 2018. She and some colleagues sought help from Professor Khabbal, in cooperation with the Agadir Medical Students Association.

It took an entire year of difficult work to complete the guide, said Reinhart. “We looked for suitable translations, not restricted to the literal translation,” she said. “We used elderly Tamazight speakers to do so. I also asked my mother to search for some words.”

Expanded Editions

Khabbal said the students developed the idea through their association, starting with an internal handbook to deal with patients. This expanded to workshops on the campus to teach Tamazight to non-native speakers for medical communication. Dozens of students have benefited from these workshops, he said.

Hamza Amzel, a fourth-year medical student and president of the Medical Students Association, said the guidebook had become a companion for students, to help them in their practical training.

“We used to ask our colleagues who speak Tamazight for help. This is unfortunate, because we have to listen to patients and accurately understand their complaints and needs. Otherwise, we will not be able to provide them with the necessary medical assistance.”

Camellia Reinhart A student at Ibn Zohr University’s Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy

After the first edition of the guide was successful among students, the authors decided to publish a second revised edition, with more accurate translations and added synonyms in Darija.

The idea developed further after a team of French physicians integrated the guide’s content into Mediglotte, an online application for medical translation between the various languages and dialects spoken around the Mediterranean.

Fatima Zahra Blilid, a student at the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy in Agadir, dedicated her graduation project to language barriers in health care.

She approached the issue from a scholarly point of view, based on the needs of her Amazigh patients in the region of Agadir. She looked for practical solutions to ease the suffering of patients, especially elderly people who do not speak Arabic or Darija.

Hope for Further Efforts

El-Hussein Bouyakoubi, a professor of Amazigh studies at Ibn Zohr University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, in Agadir, welcomes the initiative, which coincides with the ongoing work to popularise Tamazight since its adoption as an official language in 2011.

Morocco and Algeria have both recognised Tamazight as an official national language, but integrating the language into government, education and other public institutions is a continuing and sometimes controversial process.

Citing the richness of medical terms in the Amazigh language, Bouyakoubi told Al-Fanar Media that future doctors in Morocco need to learn Tamazight for successful communication with patients.

While praising the student initiative, he thinks it is insufficient “because students can learn some words, but they need to use them in their communicative context.”

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Bouyakoubi calls on the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy, and all relevant university institutions, to offer lessons in Tamazight to students.

“A Moroccan Amazigh has the right to speak his mother tongue in the hospital and elsewhere,” he said. “The constitutional recognition of Tamazight is a human right, and one of equality among all Moroccans.”

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