Saturday 6 October 2018

OET pronunciation

The Occupational English Test (OET) is an international English language test that assesses the language proficiency of health care professionals who seek to register and practise in an English-speaking environment. The test is recognised by several authorities in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the UK, Namibia and Singapore.  

On the OET’s website we read that this test “provides a valid and reliable assessment of all four language skills — listening, reading, writing and speaking — with an emphasis on communication in healthcare professional settings”.

We also find that a 2013 study by Cambridge English Language Assessment highlighted that success at OET is a good indicator of workplace readiness in terms of language proficiency:

“OET test takers found that the relevance to their professional contexts of test topics and content […] made them feel confident about their ability to communicate effectively with patients, carers, and colleagues”.  

Because having good communication skills is a vital part of any health care professional’s job, and since the OET is a test “with an emphasis on communication”, one wonders why the exam’s official Facebook page has this post on the pronunciation of “difficult” medical words:

Surely, OET educators and trainers should know that their students need to master the pronunciation(s) of a great number of medical terms: teaching learners to avoid using a technical term because it is hard to pronounce is not going to help them at all. Words like seizure are going to crop up very often in conversations in clinical settings, so students must know how to pronounce it and also, must be able to recognise it in running speech.

Seizure is one of a list of 100 words I give at the very beginning of my two medical English pronunciation books, L’inglese medico-scientifico: pronuncia e comprensione all’ascolto (EdiSES, 2014) and Health Care Professionals Speaking (EdiSES, 2015), as a way to exemplify the pronunciation of the sound ʒ:

Phonetically speaking, I really don’t see why seizure would be a “difficult” word. Clearly, spasm (GB ˈspazəm, ˈspazm̩; GA ˈspæzəm, ˈspæzm̩) cannot be considered to be any easier to pronounce. Quite the contrary. It contains the tricky consonant cluster sp- at the beginning and the problematic sequence -zəm/-zm̩ at the end. For some non-natives these clusters can be quite hard to say. Think of Spanish speakers, for example, who, because their language has no onset clusters with initial /s/ and no coda clusters with final /m/, might come up with pronunciations like *eˈspazn/*eˈspazn̩/*eˈspazən: utterly incomprehensible for English native speakers!

If you are a medical professional and you need to speak English at work, it is essential that you acquire a knowledge of phonetics and phonology. This might avoid you putting your patients at risk and ultimately getting you into trouble clearly something that Dr Alessandro Teppa should have been aware of before starting practising medicine in Britain.

For more on the topic of this post, see this article of mine or this other post I wrote in 2016. 


  1. This is a great post. I know how important it is for medical practitioners to have good speaking skills.

    The medical terms are difficult to pronounce.

  2. In my experience, mastering the pronunciation of medical words is crucial for effective communication with patients and colleagues. It's perplexing that words like "seizure" are deemed difficult when there are far more complex terms in the medical field. As someone who has studied phonetics and phonology extensively, I believe that healthcare professionals must prioritize acquiring a strong foundation in English pronunciation to ensure patient safety and avoid misunderstandings.