Language Lessons

I meant to learn Spanish a long time ago.  The years between college and medical school seemed like a clear opening, although I found plenty of ways to busy myself.  At one point I signed up for a Spanish Word of the Day email service, and dutifully copied and pasted each day’s nugget of knowledge into a comprehensive spreadsheet.  It turns out, though, that you don’t actually learn anything if you never revisit said spreadsheet.

In the first semester of medical school, I jumped to sign up for an evening course in medical Spanish.  It was a hodgepodge of students with abilities ranging from no foreign language knowledge to a substantial recollection of college Spanish, as well as one who spoke fluent Italian.  After a few sessions spent gamely following along as the instructor attempted to wrangle us through a variety of exercises that suited no one’s ability and guiltily promising myself that the following week I would devote some time to my medical Spanish workbook rather than losing it under the mountains of anatomy atlases littered around my apartment, I politely withdrew.

When I began residency, my husband and I moved into an apartment halfway between the cities where we worked.  My husband traveled by train, while I drove twenty miles down the highway to my hospital. A coworker told me of a friend in a similar situation who had used CDs to master Italian during his commute.  Armed with new determination, I secured a library card and borrowed a 3-CD set of instruction in conversational Spanish.

On the drive to work the next day, I learned several greetings and introductions.  When repeating the examples offered by my faceless instructor, I proclaimed them with gusto.  I rushed ahead during translation exercises, the overzealous student shouting out the answers before the teacher calls on her.  The warm voice coming through the speakers told me I was doing muy bien.

That afternoon I attended my first session of residents’ clinic.  I was scheduled to only see a few patients while I learned to navigate the flow of the clinic and familiarized myself with its electronic medical record system.  After yet another day of feeling lost of and overwhelmed, I began to relax as I finished writing my notes.  I offered to see an additional patient in order to help finish the day’s work, and typed my initials next to the patient’s name on the large electronic schedule board in the doctors’ workroom before heading down the hall to meet the patient.  But when I walked into the exam room and introduced myself, a mother and her daughter stared back at me silently.  I tried again, but when the mother nudged the girl and said something rapid and incomprehensible to me, I sighed.

“Español?” I asked.  They nodded.  “No inglés?” I asked, just to be sure.  No, no inglés.

A nurse had already paged a translator, so I returned to the doctors’ workroom to wait.   One of the two attending physicians commented that it had been a speedy visit, and I explained the language barrier.  The two looked at each other.

“Do you want me to take it?” one asked.

“No, it’s ok, I’ve got it,” the other assured, rising toward the door.

Both spoke fluent Spanish.  The translator was cancelled and clinic finished soon after, with no help from me.

And I remembered what was perhaps the main reason that all of my previous attempts at Spanish had fizzled: because it will take so long to ever finish, or even to make substantial progress, in learning a new language, especially when the task of learning medicine still looms large.  Because greeting a patient and exchanging pleasantries in another language isn’t the same as conducting a full encounter in that language and does not relieve my dependence on a translator.  Because these thoughts’ defeatist nature doesn’t make them any less true.

I skipped the Spanish lessons for a few days, but eventually tuned in again.  I don’t know how far this latest attempt will take me; perhaps it’s best to avoid dwelling on it, to just keep hitting “play.”  Last week I learned the colors.  I can say, “I live in a big yellow house.”  It isn’t true or even that useful.  But it’s something.


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