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Former Beijing doctor tackles toughest case: learning English


Zhen Zhen Wang is a doctor who has difficulty pronouncing such words as stethoscope and anesthesia. It's not because Ms. Wang doesn't know medical terms, but because she's still learning English.

Ms. Wang, 40, was a cardiologist at a Beijing hospital for about 13 years before moving to Elkridge three years ago.

Here, she is a part-time volunteer at Howard County General Hospital and a part-time student at Howard Community College.

Her goal is to become licensed as a doctor in the United States, a difficult pursuit given her limited English and the different requirements for doctors here and in China.

She may make it, though. Ms. Wang's dedication and work in basic English grammar classes over the past year were recognized recently with an Outstanding Student Award from the Maryland Association for Adult Community and Continuing Education.

"A young person may be able to remember a word after looking at it just once, but for me, I'm older and what I remember today, I may forget tomorrow," she said. "I have left my job and a language I knew well to basically start learning all over again in the U.S."

Her efforts have drawn admiration.

"Even though the classes at HCC are noncredit, Zhen Zhen has been one of the few to never miss a class. . . . It's not just that she shows up, but she has a deep desire to learn English and studies very hard to do so," said Diane Masters, one of Ms. Wang's former English teachers.

"She has had her share of difficulties in learning the language, but she has never been afraid to speak out and ask questions of anyone from administrators to clerks about words or ideas she didn't get," Ms. Masters said. "There are a number of students who could have received the award, but I think Zhen Zhen stands out.

"Her motivation and the fact that she gave up a very promising career to come to the U.S., and now she's working to overcome a language barrier is quite impressive," Ms. Masters said.

Ms. Wang came to Howard County three years ago with her husband Tom Owen, who owns the Cider Mill Farm in Elkridge.

She is not alone in her efforts to recast herself within her original professional in the United States.

In just her HCC class, there also is Myung Kim, 40, who was a head nurse at a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, for five years. Another South Korean, Daelto Kim, 31, plans to apply his skills as a professional violinist here. And there's Guillermo Baron, a lawyer from Bogota, Colombia, who wants to practice within the American justice system.

"We're seeing an increase in the number of students who are in the working world already in their home countries coming in and learning and refining their English skills to perform and succeed in the business and the social society of America," said Rebecca Price, a teacher in HCC's English as a Second Language (ESOL) Program.

Ms. Price estimates that about 25 percent of the ESOL students had professional jobs in their native countries, and are now rebuilding their careers.

"For many students they've been around people in their fields and well-respected, and all of a sudden they don't have the skills to communicate with even a store clerk," Ms. Price said. "Taking classes in the U.S. and trying to learn English can sometimes get quite discouraging for many of our students."

For Ms. Wang, improving her English skills isn't a burden, despite its frustrations. She calls it "her new way to survive and thrive."

"In China, I had the respect of many of my colleagues and others in my community. Here I feel pretty shy most of the time, because I am unsure of how to interact and converse with people," Ms. Wang said.

"Often I pronounce medical terms wrong and even everyday words incorrectly, but I keep practicing and trying," she said. "I realize I have to learn English. . . . Language will give me the power to succeed."

Ms. Wang says she uses her medical background in serving as a volunteer at Howard County General Hospital.

For four hours a week, she cheers up patients. Someday, Ms. Wang said, she hopes to become a doctor at the hospital.

"That is my job that I worked in for so many years," she said. "I have enough experience and I enjoy working with people, it's my English that I will keep working to improve.

"But in consoling people at the hospital, your English doesn't have to be perfect. . . . Cheering someone can break any language barriers."

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