Human Connection Through Language Barriers

By Kim Esposito, Mercy Volunteer Corps Alum, 2013-2014

"No hablo ingles."  I heard this phrase numerous times throughout the course of the past year as a volunteer at the Good Samaritan Clinic. While serving at a free health clinic with a population mainly comprised of Hispanics (approximately seventy to eighty percent), most of whom don't speak any English,  I had to put my background of studying Spanish for five years to good use. At the beginning of my year of service, it took me some time to get accustomed to speaking Spanish in a medical setting. It was much different than anything I had ever experienced while speaking a language in an educational setting, as opposed to being fully immersed in a specific culture. I had to learn on my own how to communicate effectively in Spanish, without the instruction of a teacher or professor. I figured out how to apply what I had previously learned to this new cultural setting, where often times there was not always another interpreter readily available. The majority of the patients understood that I had the knowledge to communicate with them; however, I needed to have the patience, as well as the confidence to use my skills. I knew that sometimes I could ask for help, as long as there was someone who could assist me at the time. Also, these patients were generous in providing me with assistance if I was having a difficult time finding the correct word or phrase and they would often use hand gestures in order to convey communicate effectively. With a little bit of creative compromise, the language barrier didn't seem to be so much of an issue anymore.

One of the services offered at the clinic was an ESL (English Second Language) class, taught by certified English instructors. The English class was offered every week and anyone was welcome to attend. Patients took advantage of this opportunity and many thrived from the lessons, especially our patients who had already been coming to the clinic for quite some time. It was these patients who tried to use their English when they were in the clinic and if they were having trouble, I did my best to assist them in Spanish and vice versa. They were working hard to learn English, while being immersed in a culture that was quite different than their own. I found myself in quite the similar situation this year, as I initially used my Spanish when I felt it was absolutely necessary. I became inspired by these patients and realized that I also needed to work hard to use my Spanish, especially for those who were unable to communicate during that time. I needed to advocate for these patients so they would be able to realize the importance of their health and maintaining their medical conditions. I can't even begin to understand how it feels to go to a doctor's office and have that language barrier ever present during the entire encounter. It was important for these patients to understand what was being conveyed at their appointments because they needed to be educated about topics regarding their health, which included medications, blood work, radiology orders and visiting the doctor on a routine basis. These were not necessarily the customs they had adhered to in their native Hispanic countries, as I quickly learned it was common in the Hispanic culture for many patients to only see a doctor if there was an urgent need for care.

One of the biggest lessons I learned this year was that language barriers can be overcome with the determination and willingness to open your eyes to a different culture. Despite my five years of studying Spanish, I became much more fluent during this year due to being immersed in a culture with many aspects that I had not known about prior to encountering them. I had the privilege to learn Spanish in a setting where the language barriers could have interfered, if not for the opportunity to achieve a connection of understanding what these patients wish to convey. It was an important lesson to learn that language barriers can be extremely difficult, unless we have the patience to work through the challenges surrounding them and find a way to connect with one another. Along the way, I had the opportunity to learn about a new culture and become more aware of the similarities that truly exist among different cultures. I realized that the power of human connection is so strong that it can overcome any obstacle, especially one so prevalent in our society today. One of the most crucial aspects I learned is that if people can respect the differences that exist in other cultures, we can work to overcome the language barriers, by striving to seek the main commonalities we all share as human beings.


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