I’m Not a Real Doctor, But I Acquire Like One from TV

We’ve previously reviewed evidence that you can pickup scientific vocabulary from reading science fiction. Now a new study shows that you can pickup medical vocabulary from watching TV dramas about doctors and hospitals.

Yen Dang at Bristol University (Dang, in press; paywall) created a list of 895 medical words types* that occurred frequently in medical school lectures and seminars, calling it the Medical Spoken Word List (MSWL).

She then analyzed an 11 million word corpus compiled from the scripts of more than 2,000 episodes of medical shows such as E.R., House, and Grey’s Anatomy. This allowed her to estimate how many of these MSWL words appear and how frequently. Knowing this helps us determine if viewers have a reasonable chance of acquiring them.

There was an average of around 12 episodes per season for each of the 37 TV programs in her corpus (calculated from Appendix A). The average program lasted 3.62 seasons, although a few were much longer (15 seasons for both ER and Grey’s Anatomy).

The average episode had about 5,300 words, which spoken at a rate of 120 wpm (and giving time for dramatic pauses) would mean an average episode length of about 45 minutes, which seems right for network TV dramas.

Using my (very) rough estimates, we can determine how many words can be acquired per minute of viewing. In Table 1, I list the average number of words from the MSWL that appear at least once, 10 times or more, and 20 times or more. Estimates vary as to how many times a word needs to be encountered in order to be acquired, so Dang provided counts for a range of repetitions.

Table 1: Frequency of Medical Words in TV Medical Dramas by Episode, Season, and Program

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There is an impressive number of word types that appear in even a single episode. You’d encounter nearly 15% of the entire list in a single episode at least once, or 130 words! Watching three and a half seasons of a TV medical drama would expose you to more than 2/3rds of the entire list.

If we assume it takes somewhere between 10 and 20 exposures to acquire a new word, then watching a season of 12 episodes should result in you picking up somewhere between 73 and 155 medical words. Watch the entire program (all seasons) and you’d pick up between 166 and 281 words, or 19 to 32% of the entire list.

How efficient is watching medical TV dramas? I’ve calculated the number of word types per hour and per minute in Table 2, using as 45 minute per episode estimate.

Table 2: Word Acquisition Efficiency from Watching Medical Dramas

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As you can see, watching an entire season would result in about 8.1 to 17.2 medical words per hour of viewing. Not bad for sitting on the couch and watching a (younger) George Clooney or Katherine Heigl.

We should expect that reading fiction related to medicine would yield better efficiency results than watching TV, since you read more words per minute than you can hear watching television.

Dang’s results are consistent with Rolls and Roger’s (2017) study on science words in science fiction. Watching TV and reading fiction can lead not only to more technical vocabulary, but as Stephen Krashen has pointed out to me, it can also give you background information about your field of interest.

*Word types are not the same as the more commonly-used measure in corpus studies, word families. A word family includes various forms of the same root or base word. So medical, medicinal, and medicine would all be one word family. A word type is each member of that family, so medical, medicinal, and medicine are three word types. The ratio of word types to word families in the first 3,000 most commonly used families in English is about 6:1 (Nation, 2016). After that, the types-to-family ratio starts to drop.

Because word type is a different “unit of analysis,” we cannot compare my wpm estimates directly with calculations based on word families, as is more common for, say, the Academic Word List.

Thanks to Dr. Yang for supplying me with the Appendices to her article.


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