Q Fever! Medical Humor & Satire

November 1, 2002 | Volume 3, Issue 3

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Medical Spanish

Dr. Karl

The United States has always been a land of immigrants. That's never been truer than today, and interns and residents currently face the challenges, (and enjoy the rewards), of serving this multi-ethnic population. However, language barriers may hamper the ability of care providers to communicate effectively with patients.

This issue, Q Fever!’s I&R correspondent, Dr. Karl Newman , shares his secrets for mastering: Medical Spanish , - in order to help you better serve your Spanish-speaking patients.

Hello! Or should I say "Hola"? In this day and age, with Spanish seemingly heard everywhere in the hospital, maybe I should say: "Hola". But if you don't speak Spanish, you won't understand that "Hola" is actually the Spanish word for "Hello". And you might just walk away.

That's my point: many interns and residents don't realize that Spanish is more than just the language spoken by large numbers of patients, hospital staff, and major league baseball players.

It's a language spoken by over five billion people worldwide, more than Greek, Chinese, Swahili, Albanian, English, and French combined! Not to mention German! And for every English word, there's a Spanish word that means EXACTLY the same thing, but ends with a vowel. So, yeah, Spanish is important.

"But," I hear you ask, "how can I master Spanish?" Ya work crazy hours, and medicine takes up all that brain-space! Well, that’s just what I said, until I realized that you don’t have to learn ALL the Spanish words. Just enough to talk to your patients about their medical problems. By following my simple steps, you’ll soon be sounding like a native-born Chinchilla, as people from Argentina call each other. So without further ado:

Step 1: ¡Don’t forget the upside down exclamation points!

¿Que pasa? That's right! In Spanish, they put an upside down exclamation point at the beginning of the sentence. So don’t wait until the end of the sentence to express your anger, surprise, excitement, or whatever emotion you’re trying to get across.

Before I even start talking, I widen my eyes, shake my head rapidly from side to side, and suck my breath in through my teeth … all to express that first, important, upside-down exclamation point.

I find that Spanish-speaking people often respond to this by widening their own eyes, clasping their children, and edging furtively towards the door. It’s all about BODY LANGUAGE!

Step 2: ¡Don’t forget: you already know some Spanish words!

¡Madre de dios! Yeah, you heard me. Many common English words are very similar to Spanish words. Like, as a fer instance, the word “matador”. Spanish people have adopted this word from English, and now use it commonly to describe animal handlers who dress like Liberace. Or the English word “Dorito”, derived from the Spanish word “Dorito”, meaning “nutritious snack food”.

So don’t sell yourself short. Once you know a few more Spanish words, you can start translating things from the English. I often try to put Spanish patients at ease by referring to myself as "Dr. Nuevo-Hombre", which literally means “Dr. New-Man”! See … it’s easy!

Step 3: ¡Learn which letters are pronounced differently!

¡Conjo de la madre! Hey! Watch the language, buster! What I'm trying to say is that many Spanish letters are written the same, but pronounced differently, from English letters. For example, double "L" is pronounced like the English "Y." The letter "J" is pronounced like an "H."

This all becomes pretty straightforward when you realize that the Spanish alphabet just moves all the pronunciations five letters to the left. An exception occurs in Spain, where the letter “s” is pronounced all lispy, like the English sound “th”. No wonder we beat those candy-asses in the Spanish-American war!

But I digress. Practicing these sounds, sometimes incorrectly called "diphthongs," will build up your platysma, frontalis, splenius capitis, and orbicularis oris … all head and neck muscles English speakers hardly ever use.

Step 4: ¡Practice, practice, practice!

¡Ay caramba! Sure. You can’t expect to learn a language if you don’t practice. Watch lots of Spanish soap operas and Speedy Gonzalez reruns when you’re post-call. Yell back at the TV. If you have a day off, go to California and work in the fields with migrant farm workers, many of whom come from Mexico (a MAJOR Spanish-speaking country)! See movies by the great Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar, in which Spanish women frequently remove their shirts. And when you’re all practiced up, you’ll want to:

"Just tell 'em ¡El medico Karl sent usted!"
(¡Just tell 'em Dr. Karl sent ya!)

Karl Newman, MD is a second-year resident in Internal Medicine. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Q Fever!, its editors, or its writers.

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