Med Student Mentor: Learning Spanish for Medical Practice

Jun 23, 2015

Many people take language classes at some point in their life, but there’s a big difference between passing required language tests and being proficient in a language in a working environment. Dr. David Gontrum is a physician who speaks Spanish every day in his clinic. In this podcast, he talks about the best way to learn Spanish and other foreign languages. He shares his experience with how, even after many years of speaking a language, some words can still get lost in translation—and that’s okay.

Transcript

Interviewer: Learning Spanish as a second language and applying it to your medical practice, next on The Scope Radio.

Announcer: Navigating your way through med school can be tough. Wouldn't it be great if you had a mentor to help you out? Well, whether you're first year or fourth year, we got you covered. The Med Student Mentor is on The Scope.

Interviewer: Many of us have had language education at some point in our life, however there's a big difference between passing a required language class, and being proficient in that language. Today we're here with Dr. David Gontrum, a family practitioner who works at the Oquirrh View Community Health Clinic. Dr. Gontrum has been working in this clinic for over 15 years and uses Spanish every day to communicate with his patients. How did you learn Spanish?

Dr. Gontrum: I learned Spanish the only way people can learn a language and that is by an immersive program. After the end of my first year of medical school and not knowing how to count to 10 in Spanish, my wife and I took our honeymoon and spent the whole summer down in Central America. We showed up off the plane, literally not knowing how to ask directions, or count, or ask the price of anything and threw ourselves into five weeks of an immersion language program.

In Central America, many other Spanish speaking countries, in Mexico, in South America, there's an opportunity to study Spanish with just one or two other students five, six, seven hours a day and live with a family. Through my multiple failed attempts to learn other languages, I've come to the conclusion this is the only way you can gain any remote proficiency in speaking a language. There are very affordable and frankly quite fun opportunities to do immersion Spanish and I think anyone can do it with a reasonable ability in language.

Interviewer: If I go to spring break in Cancun, is that going to help my Spanish?

Dr. Gontrum: Unfortunately I'd probably say no, as I don't think you'd have the opportunity to . . . If you were in Cancun, remember that that's essentially a resort area, which is not a great area to learn Spanish. However, if you were to go into Wahaka or the Guatemalan Highlands and take a one week, six, seven hour a day language class and stay with the family, you could make great progress in a week.

Interviewer: I'm pretty much an adult at this point in my life, or at least I'm told. Is it too late for me to learn to speak Spanish?

Dr. Gontrum: Definitely not, I'd encourage you to look around at some of my partners who didn't speak a word of Spanish as our clinic evolved to more and more of a Hispanic and Spanish speaking population that we serve. They did it as well and they learned on the job essentially. There is an incredible opportunity to learn Spanish quickly, here in this hemisphere, with a short plane ride to Mexico, Guatemala, or El Salvador. Any of the Central American countries.

Interviewer: So you mentioned earlier that a lot of your Spanish you learn on the fly, well, with patients. Is that kind of a nerve-wracking thing to be in with a patient who's sick and you don't understand a word, or can you sort that out pretty well?

Dr. Gontrum: Nerve-wracking, exhausting, exactly, but also tremendously rewarding. Fortunately, at our clinics, most of our ancillary staff are bilingual. So we have at our fingertips, or certainly outside the door, we have ready translators, ready interpreters. Gradually with help with interpreters we can get better and better.

Interviewer: Has there been a specific example, of maybe a humorous anecdote or a lost in translation moment where you and a patient were on completely separate pages?

Dr. Gontrum: Daily, and they continue. Which is a great source of fun for all of us, as we again, remind ourselves how difficult it is to communicate. Let alone in another language, even sometimes in our own. My favorite recently, we have a hospital here in the city, which was founded by the LDS Church, which is called LDS Hospital. I had a patient just the other day, who told me that she had went to the 10 hospital. I scratched my head, I couldn't figure out what she was talking about until I remembered "El diez" the 10 is LDS Hospital. So wonderful little experiences like that throughout the day make the day joyful.

Interviewer: Is there a certain threshold where you felt comfortable in the clinic, that your Spanish had progressed far enough? Or is it something where you always feel uncomfortable, you always feel like you're improving and you always feel like it's always a work in progress?

Dr. Gontrum: Yeah, I'm going to go with the latter. I always feel like I could do a better job, and that's what makes going to work everyday interesting. There's always an opportunity to learn, not just medicine but language as well. Like with anything in life, the more energy you put into it, the more rewards you get. That said of course, to achieve true fluency at my age, I'm now approaching 50, but I love working on it. I just spent two weeks this summer in Mexico doing an intensive language program, even though I certainly get by on a day-to-day basis in the clinic, I want to get better. That trip also helped me really see where my patients come from.

Interviewer: What advice do you have for someone who is considering doing the same?

Dr. Gontrum: Go abroad. It's a great idea to try and build a base with grammar and studying grammar. But the only way you're going to learn to speak is by throwing yourself into . . . and being willing to take a risk in speaking as much as you can during the day. The languages I studied as written language, like German and French, have completely evaporated from the recesses of my mind. In Spanish, since I learned it as a spoken language rather than a written language, I can get by. I can speak on a daily basis. Not with anything remotely like correct grammar, but my patients nod and appear to understand me and we get by through the visit.

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