The Road to Better Health Care through Learning Spanish

I’m a family nurse practitioner in a primary-care clinic in New York City. My patients are considered underserved—which isn’t a comment on my abilities, it just means they have little to no resources. Most have Medicaid, and some have no medical insurance at all. Many are immigrants. Others were born in this country but never learned to speak English. Occasionally, my patients get upset that I don’t speak Spanish, which is the most common (but certainly not the only) language that they speak. However, most encourage my battered Spanglish. It’s a combination of words I cobble together based on the limited English most of them know and the very limited Spanish I can work with.

I’ve never had formal training in Spanish and was pretty discouraged to take a class, given my inability to learn French in high school and college. The Spanish words I know I learned from my patients or coworkers, who often act as interpreters for me. Our secretary has had to come up with Spanish words for “gall bladder,” “erection,” “IV drug abuse,” “rectal exam,” and “ectopic pregnancy.” Other times, my patients bring someone with them to interpret. Sometimes, this is their child or sibling. It’s tough to communicate that way because we value people’s privacy in health care. I want my patients to be comfortable and not worry about their daughters asking about their most personal issues.

I received my Rosetta Stone Version 4 TOTALe package in the mail this week, and I’m looking forward to getting started. The contents look really cool—I see already that the company’s thought of things I might not have. For example, there are stickers for my keyboard for characters used in Spanish that we don’t have in English.

So, here we go—wish me luck. I’m going to use TOTALe in the evenings and on weekends. My secretary tried to tell me the word for “weekend” in Spanish while we were getting ready to leave on Friday, but I thought she said “finger banana.” I’ve got a long way to go!

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  • Cindy

    Good Luck Melissa with your studies. I’m an RN as well and always felt so ashamed and frustrated to not be able to communicate with my Spanish speaking patients. When I was on the IV team my Puerto Rican husband wrote me up a ‘cheat sheet’ of what to say when I had to insert an IV needle in a patient who didn’t have interpreters available. When I worked in Endoscopy I learned just a few words to direct patients to turn over or open their mouths, etc. Unfortunately my acquired Spanish was very inadequate and only invited further communication with them. Unfortunately I quickly exhausted my ability to continue the conversation. I’ve taken a short course in Spanish for healthcare professionals at work and a semester in college, however neither really provided me the knowledge base and practice needed to become fluent. I recently received Rosetta Stone as a gift and have thoroughly enjoyed it! I can see that during the past 3 months I’ve gained far more than I have ever hoped for. I’m currently in Level 2 Unit 3 and the core course has provided far more than my college level course ever did. The games and stories in Rosetta World as well as the live studio sessions with a native Spanish speaking coach provide far more practice than school ever did. I’m confident the with Rosetta Stone I will be able to achieve some degree of fluency. Enjoy!

  • Me

    Here’s an idea: How about these people learn English since they are in an English speaking country? Why are we expected to learn Spanish?

  • http://google CRUZ

    Well ME , Most Spanish speaking people who come into this great country of ours plan on learning English and might already know some but not fluent in English , now if you owned a business and wanted to provide great customer service and let say more than 70% of your current customers were Spanish speaking , would you turn away the customers that wanted your product or would you advise your staff to learn Spanish? or would you just say Owell and let those customers go else where, and let the cash fly out the door?
    I am a US citizen of Mexican descent but didn’t learn to speak Spanish until I was 12 yrs old I just refused to speak it for what ever reason but after my mom who didn’t speak a lick of English finally had enough and knew how important it was to learn both language’s had me stay in Mexico with family by my self for 3 months during the summer and because of it I now have this job and it is due to being able to speak both language’s. Please have a great day and I hope you can educate yourself for a better tomorrow.

  • Jeff

    I guess I’ll be one of the business owners only serving the 30% of my customers who speak English rather than sell my soul. I will plan on learning Spanish when I decide to move to Mexico, Spain or some other 3rd world location where it is the language of the land because at that point, I would be a guest in their country and would expect to learn their ways if I wanted to stay there.
    Obviously, without knowing English, these people cannot be legal immigrants. I have friends from Austria who just became citizens and and to show proficiency in English to become citizens.
    I’m all for educating ones self for the joys of learning but don’t tell me I HAVE to learn a foreign language to communicate with people who are living in my country and not speaking the language of the land

  • Elizabeth

    “Obviously, without knowing English, these people cannot be legal immigrants. I have friends from Austria who just became citizens and and to show proficiency in English to become citizens.”

    Obviously, you don’t know anything about immigration in this country. People can be legal immigrants without becoming citizens. There are travel visas and work visas and marriage visas that do not make language requirements. While you may be right that these people are not citizens of the US, that does not mean that their presence in the US is illegal.

    Not to mention Puerto Ricans. Certainly many can speak English, but many others cannot. And yet, they can live in the United States, just like any other person born in a territory of the USA.

    No one is obligated to learn a language beyond their first language, but if Melissa and others want to increase the number of people they can effectively help in their chosen professions, that is admirable. It shows a dedication and compassion that more people should have.

    This is not a discussion about immigration, but instead about language use. While the two are often closely related, they are not the same issue.

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