Rising Hispanic Population in U.S. Prompts Baylor University Linguist to Create a Medical Spanish Course for Pre-med Students
Nov 09, 2011 | 2136 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print

WACO — With the Hispanic population in the United States expected to nearly triple by 2050, a Baylor University linguist has developed a course tailored to meet the crucial need for medical professionals to cross language and cultural barriers.

In her classes, Dr. Karol Hardin, an assistant professor of Spanish in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, blends medical terminology in Spanish with practical, everyday speaking and an emphasis on cultural differences — including folk medicine and spirituality.

Hardin based the curriculum on her experience while working for four years in the rain forest in Ecuador alongside her husband, a family physician and former medical missionary. Hardin translated for medical volunteers and taught Spanish grammar classes.

The classes are taught almost completely in Spanish, with emphasis on oral proficiency and comprehension rather than simply memorizing medical terminology, Hardin said. While some students may establish practices overseas or become medical missionaries in Spanish-speaking countries, she said, those who stay in the United States would be wise to have a grasp of conversational medical Spanish to serve Hispanic patients, some of whom may speak little or no English.

Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the nation, according to U.S. Census data. The population grew from 35 million in 2000 to 50.5 million in 2010, in part because of immigration. If trends continue, nearly 130 million Hispanics will live in the United States by 2050, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Of the nation’s 10 cities with the highest Hispanic populations, four are in Texas: Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.

Some medical schools and residency programs teach medical Spanish to serve patients who know little or no English, and some companies offer online training regionally and internationally. But Hardin believes Baylor’s undergraduate method is superior to such textbook or online approaches.

For example, while translating “cardiovascular” in Spanish is excellent, and proper verb conjugation is something to strive for, it is equally — or more — important to correctly greet a patient or to learn to soften bad news.

“Your grammar can be poor, but if you’re not polite, patients won’t come back to you,” Hardin said.

She teaches students when to use the formal form of the pronoun for “you” rather than the informal one — “so you’re showing deference” — and to make requests rather than issue directives.

Also, learning idioms saves time and avoids confusion, Hardin said.

For example, among some Eastern Ecuadorian Spanish speakers, if people say the bottoms of their feet itch, that means the individual suspects kidney problems. And “when someone says, ‘My kidneys hurt,’ you generally know the person has lower back pain. You can’t take it literally,” Hardin said. “You have to know the folk understanding or spiritual understanding as related to the biological reality.”

In a recent classroom role-playing exercise, students split up in pairs, and Hardin gave them magazine photos. The students did an “examination” and sought information from the “patients” about their health.

How would they ask the older woman to remove her clothes from the waist up? How would they talk to the policeman about his diet? And what about the 3-year-old girl who is due for a shot? She is still struggling to learn her native language, let alone English.

Baylor’s program began with two intermediate classes for those who plan to enter the medical field, with 25 students each, and Baylor added a third class this fall to meet demand.

“I just want to be prepared,” said Eric Cline, a Baylor junior who wants to be a surgeon. “I’m already pretty fluent in Spanish, and this is a review for me in grammar. But the emphasis is to cultivate a personal relationship with patients, and talking to them in their native language is more personal.”

The course also can help dodge such mistakes as confusing “embarazada” – which means pregnant – with “embarrassed,” he said. Years ago, a pen company made that much-publicized error when it entered the Latin American market. Its pen was advertised as one that “won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you." Instead, the mistranslation promised that the pen “won’t impregnate you.”

About Baylor

Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions.

About the College of Arts & Sciences

The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 27 academic departments and 13academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit www.baylor.edu/artsandsciences

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