Thursday, December 22, 2011

Well That's New

The other day, a patient told me that I should learn Spanish.
In typical Mingle fashion, I wanted to retort, "Well maybe YOU should learn Chinese instead!"  But since I am an otherwise professional person, I just laughed it off and said I would try.  Also, that particular patient is a really nice guy, and he didn't say it in a mean way, so I let it go.

Picking up a language is really hard.  It's one thing to ask, "Excuse me, where is the bathroom?"  It's an ENTIRELY difficult situation when someone asks you to translate, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does it hurt, and does the pain radiate down your spine?"  When I took Latin in high school, I could read pretty well but I couldn't write very well...MAYBE, if my life depended on it, I could have written better sentences but no one ever put me in that situation, so yeah.....Also, when I took Chinese as a kid, I could recite, write and read but had NO idea wtf was coming out of my mouth/pen.  Reading comprehension was clearly not a priority in Chinese class.

My current job as a translator can be challenging on its own without having to consider putting in the extra time/effort to learn Spanish.  Most of my patients are from Hong Kong and speak Cantonese, but a few speak in Mandarin (the dominant dialect in northern China) and a few speak another dialect called Taishanese (from a rural region of southern China).  I speak/understand Cantonese well enough to get by, but can only vaguely understand Mandarin and Taishanese...coupled with the fact that elderly people like to ramble off on tangents, things get confusing.

IT'S FREAKIN' HARD TO KEEP TRACK OF THIS STUFF.  Also, MCAT English is difficult enough.  There is no room in this brain for Spanish, sir, no room!  On a bad day, I forget to switch gears and translate back to English and repeat sentences to the physical therapist in Chinese.

Anyway, I sympathize with those health professionals who get chastised for not knowing enough Spanish to speak to patients...It ain't easy, even if everyone says "you should learn it because you're going to need it."  And for those people who always say, "Well I lived abroad for a year and I can speak XYZ really confidently," well, does that hold true when the conversation shifts to complex medical/scientific terminology?

Another thing I've noticed is that patients like to ask my nationality, but rapid-fire a list like a Lightning-Round 20 Questions game before I have the chance to answer.  They also have the tendency to guess everything BUT Chinese.  I never expected that from people who live IN San Francisco because it's such a diverse city, but diversity doesn't mean everyone's taught to be politically correct.

Patients: "Are you Filipino?  Japanese?  Korean? Vietnamese?  Malaysian?  Thai?  Cambodian?  Laotian?  Inuit?  Tibetan?  Mongolian?  Hawaiian?"
Me (after an imaginary facepalm):  "No, I'm Chinese."
Patients: "OH! I have Chinese friends.  I also have a Japanese friend, a Filipino friend, an Indian friend...."
Me (in my head):  "Uh....We're not collectibles........"

I actually don't find it annoying...just extremely amusing in my typical dry-sense-of-humor fashion.  Usually these are the nicer patients who try to strike up a conversation with their limited grasp of English.  I appreciate the effort.


  1. That's cool that you speak Chinese. I didn't know you were a translator; that's great. I'm actually fluent in Spanish and worked for a while as a medical interpreter. You're right about the transition from regular, colloquial and conversational Spanish to medical and anatomical terminology. It's definitely note easy. I also feel your pain when it comes to picking up extra languages; I'm conversation in German, but there's no way I would feel comfortable interpreting for a German-speaking patient... Chinese has always intrigued me, but where Spanish is a low-rising foothill, Chinese is Everrest.

  2. German is definitely a cool language. I always wanted to learn!

    Speaking in Chinese isn't soooo bad. The grammar (for speaking at least) is straightforward: subject, verb, object. It's the tones that make it hard...but Mandarin only has 4 tones, if you ever dabble in it :) I struggle with Spanish because a) people talk fast and b) many words contain more than one syllable and I can't differentiate between words when people speak. In Chinese, all words are monosyllabic. Terms can be composed of 2+ words, like how "Pap Smear" is a term composed of two words, which makes things easier in my mind. :)

  3. Whoa, I had no clue all Chinese words were monosyllabic. I can definitely see how that would make Spanish difficult. There is even a Spanish nursery rhyme / tongue twister that plays off of the tendency of many Spanish words to be really long: it includes the fictitious word "desemparangaricutirimicuarizado," which would mean "unemparagaricutirimicuarized," or "made unlike Parangaricutirimicaro," given a place called Parangaricutirimicuaro (actually a real Mexican village). Yeah, I can see how that would be difficult coming from a monosyllabic language...

  4. I didn't know that about Chinese either. Fascinating.

    What I find difficult about romance languages is that often the subject comes AFTER the verb. It's really hard for me to listen for.

    And frankly I'm impressed that you know ANY other language well enough to be an interpreter. I wish I did. It's just this damn thing called med school takes so much freaking time!

  5. I just get really confused by the conjugating.

    I grew up speaking Chinese, but I went through a period in high school where it deteriorated. I've improved since then, since I volunteered at a free clinic that catered to Chinese-speaking populations. I would say that my level of fluency is mid-range though and strictly medical lingo...I don't think I can translate for legal/financial situations :P

    The monosyllabic thing is REALLY helpful to deduce things...If I come across a medical term I don't know in Chinese, I can at least figure out what part of the body is involved and look up the disease later.

  6. Mingle- as old MD girl says you're doing well knowing any other language. I tried to learn French for an entire year and the degree of difficulty is 10.10 or whatever. . . nevermind learning another language AND all the medical jargon that goes with it.
    You'd have to go and live AND work in the profession in a foreign country to pick it all up.

  7. Thanks for the votes of support :)