28 May




Since I began more medical interpreting, a frequent conundrum appears weekly during the patient-doctor interaction. Physician Wellington speaks a bit of Spanish, ignores the interpreter and addresses comments directly to the LEP. More often than not the rendering confuses the patient what with clumsy syntax and a curious accent. I know I’m to manage the communication flow as a conduit, clarifier, culture broker and advocate. What happens when butchered Spanglish enters the picture? How do I assuage the doctor’s ego, intervene politely and facilitate understanding?


My first reaction is to smile and repeat what Madame Nurse said and hope Señora Villaverde continues to chatter on. Rarely does the LEP attempt to speak English and when that happens, a quick glance to the provider lets me know if she understood. Invariably some doctor continues to rattle on en español and I look frantically to Mrs. Villaverde to check for comprehension. Then the nurse speaks again and the LEP appears puzzled. Ever the diplomat I ask “May the interpreter clarify?” to clear up any misunderstanding. Perhaps I whine here. My point is,  I don’t begin to know how to practice medicine. I do know how to interpret. How do you politely intervene when a provider insists on speaking poor Spanish? I’d like to hear from you.


  1. Michael Felger, CMI-Spanish May 28, 2014 at 5:29 pm #

    I think that the institution is ultimately responsible for educating providers in this case. The medical setting is not the place to be practicing one’s Cancun Spanglish. Although, it may be the case (as with many providers) that he is taking some medical Spanish lessons on the side, and he’s just trying to use what he has (or hasn’t) learned. I do find that patients are appreciative of providers who attempt to introduce themselves in broken Spanish. It’s often seen as a gesture of good will and sets a good tone. However, that’s where it needs to end. I have read that some health systems are actually language testing employees to determine who is allowed to speak another language, and I think that kind of institutional leadership is fantastic. But your question remains—how best to intervene? I think it’s a case by case judgement call. Maybe, “Sorry, Doctor, the patient does not seem to understand your Spanish.” That seems pretty passive to me, and hopefully he’ll pick up on it and use you to interpret. I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts.

  2. Cati June 7, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    I have intervened by saying “Madame interpreter would like to check for understanding” … LEP usually says something funny like “I can’t understand a lick of what the medical professional is trying to tell me” and there is usually a mutual chuckle afterward. The professional would typically say “looks like I need to go back to Spanish I and laughs” but yes, I so feel for you because I become embarrassed for the person trying to communicate. However, in small doses it is very nice is letting the patient know that the professionals do value learning the language

  3. Holly Navarro July 9, 2014 at 7:53 pm #

    I agree with Mr. Felger… Yes introduce yourself, exchange pleasantries… but leave the rest to the professionals please! The hospital system I work for does require staff to take the same language testing as interpreters if they want to use their language skills. After the session or during down time I simply smile and say, “you know you’re not allowed to do that…” If they act surprisd, I just tell them that those are the rules.

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