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November 18, 2018 8:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm a senior medical student interested in working with underserved populations. In my current city, I've been able to do that almost entirely in English. Where I am likely to move next year for residency training, this will be almost impossible to do without speaking Spanish. How can I best use the next seven months to improve my speaking and comprehension?

I currently have no Spanish whatsoever outside some halfhearted attempts at Duolingo over the years. I studied French in school and got to a point where I could read a newspaper, but was never able to speak or comprehend comfortably -- my brain was always trying to transcribe and then translate what I heard.

I know there are classes/resources for medical Spanish, but they all require an elementary level that I do not have. I would really like to have at least basic Spanish conversational skills by the time I start residency, and I want to prioritize speaking and comprehension over reading and writing. I am willing to pay some money (not private tutor money... maybe a few hundred dollars) if it means accessing a better resource. I have read previous questions/advice suggesting things like Spanish-language podcasts and YouTube videos, but I am not at that level yet. Is Duolingo really the best approach, or just the cheapest and most accessible?
posted by telegraph to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Go to Mexico and take classes for cheap. I’ve done Escuela Falcon in Guanajuato and it was fabulous. Their medical Spanish classes are taught by a dentist who knows her shit. They do 2-4 hours of class per day (all you can realistically absorb- remember you’re also speaking Spanish the rest of the day) for about $500 a week
posted by genmonster at 8:29 AM on November 18, 2018 [8 favorites]

You can’t get basic conversational proficiency in seven months is the bad news. Language acquisition doesn’t work like that unless you have a special aptitude or do total in-country immersion or something.

Seven months is under two semesters. I was able to have functional work conversations (as a social worker) after two years of Spanish and a summer at Middlebury (ie immersion-lite) and I am pretty good at languages.

What you might want to do to get as far as you can is there are Skype lessons and conversation practice with people in Central America. It’s one on one and not expensive. I googled it at some point but don’t have details at hand. Should be easy to find.
posted by Smearcase at 9:05 AM on November 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

There are a ton of volunteer opportunities for health care professionals in Spanish-speaking areas/ countries. Contact some. They may have some learn Spanish while you volunteer opportunities where they will teach you Spanish while you give vaccinations or whatever. Contact the local ESL programs and find a Spanish speaker who will swap Spanish practice for English practice.
posted by theora55 at 9:20 AM on November 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

The good news is that between now and the start of internship you'll have the most time to study Spanish as you ever will have in your life until retirement. The bad news is that seven months is not a ton of time.

The larger university that your medical school is a part of probably has Spanish 101. Email the professors and see if you can audit for next semester. The fees are usually pretty low for people already affiliated with the university; downside is that sometimes language classes are not allowed to be audited, but the professor might still let you sit in if you ask nicely and don't create additional work for them. Once you have the basics of grammar and pronunciation down, the rest is picking up specific medical vocabulary which is much easier.

Many medical schools have Spanish immersion electives for fourth-years, where you live with a host family for a month and do basic medical tasks (like check BP, give vaccinations, etc). Usually those are scheduled for the spring, after the Match, although one of my friends was in Chile in March (he had someone else pick up his match envelope and email him the news). My best friend did one of these where she was in Guatemala for 5 weeks. She came in knowing minimal Spanish ("Hola" was about the extent of it) and ended up fluent enough that she is now the Program Director for Primary Care at a major metropolitan medical center with a large Spanish-speaking population, and precepts a clinic for underserved/underinsured people. Obviously she continued using Spanish extensively through her residency, but she went from 0 to 60 very quickly.

Are there Spanish-language TV stations where you are? Or if you have Netflix, there is lots of Spanish content. (If you don't have Netflix, Hoopla and Kanopy are often free with a public library card or a .edu email address.) Hearing the rhythms of the speech can be helpful, even if you are relying on subtitles at first.

Check meetup for conversation groups in your area.

A 6-month subscription to Rosetta Stone is $78 right now. A two-year subscription is twice that, which is a fantastic value, but you may not get much time in internship/residency to actually use it.
posted by basalganglia at 9:35 AM on November 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks very much for great answers already! Just to clarify for future answers since the term is a bit misleading, senior medical student means that I am spending the rest of the year traveling for interviews and working on my own research projects -- I don't register for courses or abide by the semester system anymore (in fact, although I have tons of free time, it's all broken up by a rigid interview schedule, so I can't commit to a university course). As such I'm more interested in resources I can use independently, like Rosetta Stone, or specific immersive experiences like Escuela Falcon.
posted by telegraph at 10:19 AM on November 18, 2018 is a great place to video chat virtually with native Spanish speakers or get affordable and flexible tutoring. There's lots of free options to chat with people learning English (you chat with them in English and then in Spanish) or you can pay for tutoring. Tutors set their own prices so there's a lot of variance in cost and quality-- some are professionals and their prices are mostly in the $15/hour range. Others are "community tutors" who don't have much experience or educational background but are much cheaper.

Absolutely if you can do an immersion course, though, do it. There's tons of schools set up for this all over Latin America (not sure I'd recommend the ones I did over the other options so no specific recommendations, sorry). I'd recommend some sort of homestay where you continue practicing with a family outside of class-- the several weeks I spent being tutored was undermined when I came back to my hostel and socialized with English speakers all evening :/

I would suggest doing a lot of listening comprehension right away-- in my experience the listening piece took a long time to click and it's going to be a really important part for you-- you can get to the point where you have a list of common questions you feel comfortable asking but if you don't understand a wide range of possible responses you won't get anywhere. There are videos and podcasts designed for early learners-- Destinos might be a good one to check out. You can also start rewatching your favorite tv shows in spanish with spanish subtitles (although sometimes the translation between the two is different, which is annoying and going to be especially unhelpful for you so keep an eye on that and maybe pick a different show if you're running into it).

Also, (and you've probably thought about this) make sure you're learning from people who have the same accents as the people you'll be working with. Obviously Spanish from Spain is different from Latin American Spanish, but Caribbean Spanish from DR or Puerto Rico is also going to be a lot different than Mexican or Chilean Spanish.
posted by geegollygosh at 1:00 PM on November 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'd avoid Rosetta Stone; a lot of independent language-learners seem to have had bad experiences with it. Sites like italki are indeed very useful -- or, another one where you can find people who want to practice their English in exchange for you practicing Spanish. Many languages have news broadcasts or podcasts in simpler language for learners -- find some for Spanish. And check out Benny Lewis' Fluent in Three Months -- both the site and the book. Sounds gimmicky, but if you dig around there's actually a lot of solid advice in there for independent learners.
posted by diffuse at 3:20 PM on November 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I went to Guatemala and took immersion classes in the summer before med school. I was surprisingly conversant for awhile, but didn’t keep it up.
posted by killdevil at 4:36 PM on November 18, 2018

Your library may have the Pimsleur CDs.
posted by oceano at 1:55 AM on November 19, 2018

CD or video-based programs won't be good value for money. Duolingo is free but not the best time investment. These things can teach you the grammar basics and some core vocabulary, but you need to be speaking to native Spanish speakers in real contexts, as much as you can. You can "learn" a lot of Spanish in seven months, but you want it in your mouth, not in your head. No matter how much you use language-learning materials, your first day of learning Spanish is the day you are speaking Spanish because you have to, because the person you're talking to cannot understand English. You want to rack up as many of those days as you can before you're at work needing to use Spanish.

I studied Spanish in educational contexts for something like five years (plus a linguistics degree) before I moved to South America and got dropped in the deep end - nobody in the place I lived spoke any English at all. I took immersion classes there, and advanced more in six weeks than I did in the previous five years. The Spanish I learned in classes and the Spanish I speak are, in my mind, basically two different languages. When you're in the world, using the spoken language, you simply don't have much access to the "learned" version. Things move too fast.

The biggest difference for me is that language classes aim to teach you a long-term mastery of the language. Speaking Spanish in the world teaches you how to talk around the gaps in your ability using the Spanish you have, which is an extremely useful short-to-medium term skill.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 11:31 AM on November 19, 2018

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