Global Citizens: how knowing a language pays off for a Columbia University medical student

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    Annie is a bilingual, adventure-loving, third-year medical student at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

I had the opportunity to interview Annie Onishi, a Middlebury College graduate and third-year medical student at Columbia University, about her use of the Spanish language as she prepares to become a doctor.  

QHow did you start studying Spanish?

A:  I started taking Spanish in middle school, stuck with it because I had to take a language, continued on at Middlebury because the college had a good reputation for languages– and I still had a language requirement to fill.  I always enjoyed the time I spent with my Spanish professors.

Q:  Could you talk about how you learned Spanish without having gone abroad?

A:  Going to a Spanish-speaking country is definitely on my list of things to do; but, to me learning Spanish was always a part of becoming a doctor.  

Q:  So you knew early-on that you would want to use Spanish as a doctor.

A:  I wasn’t sure I was going to do medicine but I think I had the foresight even as a young high school student to know that a language could be helpful.  

Q:  Give us a little context on the neighborhood where you live and study.

A:  I live in Washington Heights, which is a neighborhood in northern Manhattan, historically Irish and Jewish, but in the last 20 years there has been a huge influx of Spanish speakers from the Dominican Republic.  Let’s just say, it’s so Dominican up here that the people running for president in the D.R. come up here and campaign.  I have neighbors who have lived here for 10, 15, 20 years, and don’t know a word of English, and they get by just fine.  It’s almost expected that you speak Spanish up here.

Q:  So as you got to Columbia, when did you realize Spanish would be important?  When did it start playing a role?

A:  As a third year student you’re on the lowest rung of the ladder.  I don’t know anything about medicine but when I’m the only one in the room who can speak to the patient everyone turns and looks at me.  

Q:  Happens often?

A:  Mm, fifteen times a week.  

Q:  What are those conversations like?

A:  My Spanish is at a point now where I can have a conversation with someone about their families, why they’re in the hospital, what’s hurting them, how we can help them.  

Q:  Some pretty complicated vocab.

A:  There are times when I’ve gotten pieces of a story that no one else got, because [other people] used their broken, crappy Spanish.  

Q:  Pieces of a story that would have…

A:  Medical significance.  Yeah.  Plus I wouldn’t really call myself a ‘fluent speaker,’ but I think patients really appreciate it when they see a gringa like me taking time to learn the language.  My neighbors appreciate it, [as do] the people who work in the stores in Washington Heights.  

Q:  Do you hope to use Spanish as your career goes on?

A:  Why not?  It would be such a waste to stop.  It’s going to make me a more dynamic doctor.  There’s value to having translators in the hospitals but I could just speak to them face to face. Best example I’ve seen: once we had a woman come in and she [had been beaten up].  We asked her what happened and after awhile it turned out she was deaf!  We had to call a translator.  The nearest translator lives over in Jersey.  That story is an example of how the dynamics of a translator alter the patient doctor relationship.

Q:  Any advice for young students?

A: Pick a language that you enjoy learning.  Work hard at it.  Be consistent.  Don’t give up. And try to be practical about it.  Have a practical goal for your language skills. If you have a goal it will make all those exercises seem easier.  I think there’s value in learrning language for the sake of learning language, but I think it’s always easier to start a task if you have a goal in mind.

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