Saturday, June 30, 2018

Translation: Language article I, part 2

This entry marks my continued translation from Spanish to English of the online article, "Sobre 'pilota', 'portavoza', 'miembra' y otros femeninos." by Salvador Gutiérrez, published in El Mundo February 10, 2018. I began the translation some months back and started to share it with you, then came a hiatus from blogging. I disappeared! Actually, my medical writing and editing have been keeping me very busy, and busy is good! But I want to be more diligent about making time for these entries, which for me, keep the Spanish-English linguistic muscle alive and flexing! 

Before continuing with the article, I'm going to side-step for a moment and mention something which initially here will seem out of place. A while back I had seen a movie called Sideways. If you've never seen it, please do! It's a wonderful film about wine, life, struggle, friendship, love, truth, deception, and self-discovery. If you have seen it, then you know what a great movie it is without further explanation. Well, at one point, one of the characters in the film refers to a bottle of wine as being alive. That if it was opened on one day, it would taste different than if it was opened on any other day. I mention this here because, in many ways, I'm finding the process of translation to be very much the same. Translation is a living process. How I express what is written on the page in Spanish one day changes if I put the writing down and return to it at another time. How does it change? Well, I can't alter the meaning the original author intended, but the way I express that meaning varies as I vary. It's fluid, as I'm fluid. It changes with me. I prepared the following paragraphs 3 months ago, but I read them again today and made changes, because I'm not looking at it through the same eyes--from even as little a time as 3 months back. I leave you with this quote from Heraclitus, which best sums up this experience better than I can express it:

"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."


Con la norma hemos dado, amigo Sancho. En estas situaciones, recuerdo las palabras de Emilio Alarcos en el "Prólogo" a su Gramática de la lengua española: "Conviene así que el normativismo se forre de escéptica cautela". Incluía esta afirmación después de hacer referencia al Appendix Probi, un texto normativo del siglo IV en el que se condenaban la forma de pronunciar y de escribir más de 250 palabras en el latín hablado porque se apartaban de la norma del latín clásico: "mensa non mesa", "tabula non tabla", corregía. El éxito de tales anatemas fue nulo: casi la totalidad de las formas repudiadas triunfaron en las lenguas romances. El resultado del análisis coincide siempre con la tesis de Horacio en el Arte poética: la palabras perecen o reviven "si el uso lo quiere" ("si uolet usus"). El pueblo es el dueño del idioma.

With the norm we have given, friend Sancho. In these situations, I remember the words of Emilio Alarcos in the “Prologue” to his Spanish Language Grammar: “It helps that normativism is lined with skeptical caution.” It included this affirmation after making reference to the Probi Appendix, a text of rules from the 4th century in which condemned the manner of pronouncing and writing more than 250 words in spoken Latin because they were separated from the classical Latin rules: “mensa non mesa”, “tabula non tabla”, they corrected. The success of such exclusions amounted to nothing: almost the entire number of rejected words found their place in the romance languages.  The result of this analysis always coincides with the thesis of Horacio in Poetic Art:the words appear or relive “if their use is warranted” (“si uolet usus”). The people are the keepers of the language.

En las discusiones sobre la corrección de una forma o de una expresión lingüística conviene diferenciar dos conceptos: el sistema y la norma. El sistema es el marco formal que establece las posibilidades de variación o de combinación que permite la lengua. Muchas de esas posibilidades no están aplicadas o explotadas por el uso, a causa de diferentes razones. La norma recoge lo que en un momento dado los hablantes consideran correcto. El sistema es estable, cambia con extrema dificultad. Sin embargo, la norma es variable, tornadiza. Depende de la valoración del pueblo.

In discussions regarding the correction of a word form or a linguistic expression, it helps to differentiate between two concepts: the system and the rule. The system is the formal mark that establishes the possibilities of variation or combination that the language permits. Many of those possibilities are not applied or fully explored in through regular use, due to various reasons. What is considered “the rules” at the moment is what speakers consider correct. The system is stable, and changes only with extreme difficulty. However, the rules are variable, like a tornado’s path. They depend on the acceptance of the people.

Pongamos algunos ejemplos. El sistema de la lengua nos dice que el femenino de sustantivos de profesiones se forma morfológicamente añadiendo la desinencia -a al masculino. Sin embargo, por diversas razones (muchas veces relacionadas con la realidad social), esa posibilidad del sistema no siempre se realiza. En las Cortes de Cádiz el término diputado era masculino y solo designaba a varones, pues la mujer no podía ser elegida parlamentaria. Cuando alcanza este derecho, el término diputada, perfecta según el sistema de la lengua, chocaba con la costumbre, con la norma, por lo que se prefirió durante algún tiempo diferenciar el sexo solo a través del artículo (el diputado/la diputado). Más tarde, el uso generalizará la forma femenina y hoy decimos con toda naturalidad diputada.

We’ll give a few examples. The language system tells us that the feminine of professional nouns is formed morphologically by adding the ending “-a” to the masculine. However, for various reasons (many times related to the social climate), that suggestion of the language system is not always accomplished.  In “Las Cortes de Cádiz”, the term “diputado” was masculine and only meant for men, because a woman couldn’t be elected to parliament. When this right was achieved, the term “diputada”, perfect according to the language system, clashed with custom,  with the accepted norm, which preferred during that time to differentiate between the sexes through a change in the article (el diputado/ la diputado). Later, with use, the feminine form would become more common and today we say completely naturally “diputada”.


Gutiérrez, Salvador Ó. (2018 February 10).  Sobre 'pilota', 'portavoza', 'miembra' y otros femeninos. El Mundo. Retrieved from:

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Translation: Language article I

“Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.” – Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Some might read the above quote and think it’s out of line. Sexist. Inappropriate. And maybe it’s all of those things, but I also think that it’s pretty funny. It gave me a chuckle, particularly the part about a translation being too faithful to the text of origin – the end result is usually quite cumbersome and repulsive. I’m thinking specifically about a practice test I recently took for the American Translators Association (ATA). The ATA offers exams in an unlimited number of languages, to and from one language or another. If you pass the test, you are certified by the ATA in that language group. And it’s desirable to have this certification, because it means you have achieved a certain level of adeptness in translating between the two languages. But passing, here, is the operative term, indeed. I must say, having just handed in my practice exam, I did not imagine that it would be so difficult.

My language pair of interest is, as it should be painfully obvious to anyone who’s read my blog, Spanish into English. I’m a native English speaker. I studied Spanish in grade school, high school, college, graduate school and I’ve taken courses in translation. I thought, how hard can this be? But there is so much to think about when translating. You want to preserve the meaning of the source language. In order to do that, sometimes you have to greatly alter the way the material is expressed in the target language. If you do this, you have to work hoping you don’t obscure or change the original meaning. You have one and a half hours to translate two small paragraphs—at least this is what I had to do during the practice exam. But the level of second-guessing myself and back-tracking was incredible! I am entirely expecting that my end result, once graded, will not be good. However, I’m using this as a learning experience, hopefully from which to glean some know-how before taking the test for real.

In an effort to improve translation skills and increase Spanish non-medical vocabulary, I have decided to start taking articles of interest from the internet and translate them in sections in my blog. My method of translation is to initially write what I know. Then I look up words and/or phrases that are unfamiliar or potentially confusing in the Spanish-English dictionaries, both online and in text, and look for parallel text examples either via Google searches or a very helpful site I found called “”. I follow the newspaper, El Mundo, on social media sites, and recently they posted an article regarding the on-going battle to feminize some traditionally masculine words in the Spanish language. I love reading pieces like this, where feminism takes the fight to the linguistic level.

In English, words are not masculine or feminine unless they are structured that way, ie, the mailman, the waitress.  But these can easily be changed to be neutral, by changing the word altogether or having the formerly masculine word be used to denote both men and women, ie, mailperson, mail carrier,  waiter (m & w), waitperson. This article addresses similar terms in Spanish, one of them being:  portavoz  which means spokesman. The argument is, women can be spokespeople too, so make the word feminine: portavoza

I will translate the article to go into more detail, but I am just thinking now, if I had to translate an article that contained the word portavoz, I would likely translate it as spokesperson in keeping with the trend of neutrality in language today. In this way, to the reader, the spokesperson can be either man or woman. But if I was translating an article that said portavoza, I would have no choice but to translate it spokeswoman. I’m just thinking, maybe in the end, this isn’t liberating at all – only just as restricting? Maybe it’s not about changing the word, but changing how we think about the word? Well, let’s find out what the author Salvador Gutiérrez Órdoñez has to say in the article and reconvene after the translation of all the sections is completed.

Sobre 'Pilota', 'Portavoza', 'Miembra' y Otros Femeninos
 Salvador Gutiérrez Órdoñez

De vez en cuando los políticos sacuden la conciencia normativa de los ciudadanos con la propuesta de femeninos rupturistas. Así ocurrió con jóvenasmiembra y, estos últimos días, con el uso de portavoza. En tales casos, se producen debates intensos, incluso encarnizados, que, con independencia del costado al que se incline la razón, denotan una saludable preocupación por la salud y pureza de la lengua. Todos hemos interiorizado en los años de formación, primero, y, luego, a lo largo de toda la vida, una preocupación por las normas de la corrección (el recte loquendi del que hablaban dos gramáticos hispánicos de relieve universal: Quintiliano y Nebrija). Es normal asimismo que, en el fragor de la discusión, los ciudadanos airados giren la mirada hacia los gramáticos y hacia los académicos pidiendo una condena inquisitorial ("crucifícalo, crucifícalo"). Las personas menos airadas, pero sorprendidas, solicitan una aclaración: "¿Está bien dicho?".

Every once in a while, politicians shake the normative conscience of its citizens with the proposal of breakthrough feminine (words) . As it’s happened with youths, member, and in recent days, with the use of spokeswoman. In such cases, there are intense debates, rather brutal ones, which, regardless of the side to which reason is inclined, they denote a healthy concern for the health and purity of the language. We have all interiorized during the formative years, first, and later, for as long as a lifetime, a concern about the corrective rules (the recte loquendi spoken about by two Hispanic grammarians of universal importance: Quintiliano and Nebrija). It is normal, likewise, in the heat of the discussion,  angry citizens turn their gaze toward the grammarians and to the academicians asking for an investigative condemnation (“crucify him, crucify him”). The less angry, but surprised, people ask for clarification: “Is it being said correctly?”


Goonjur, Medhav K. (2017 September 6). Funny translation from Chinese to English. MTA Network the Sign of Success. Retrieved from:

Gutiérrez, Salvador Ó. (2018 February 10).  Sobre 'pilota', 'portavoza', 'miembra' y otros femeninos. El Mundo. Retrieved from:

Courtesy: MTA Network, Goonjur MK

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


(Aviso legal: los siguientes párrafos representan mi opinión y se escriben en mi español – el español de una hablante nativa de inglés, quien trata todos los días a aprender un poco más de español que lo que ella conocío el día anterior.)

Doctora: (después de acabar el examen) Me complace ver que el medicamento funcione para usted. Debe regresar en seis meses para otra revisión de los ojos.

Paciente: Sí, gracias, los colirios me hicieron sentir mejor de los ojos. Los ojos no me queman o pican no más.

D: Está bien. Pero una cosa, cuando regresa para la cita en seis meses, desafortunadamente, no estaré en esta oficina.

P: ¿No trabajará aquí? ¿Qué, se muda?

D: No sé todavía. Quiero pasar el tiempo afuera del ámbito médico para un rato.

P: Me hace decepcionada oír estas noticias. Usted era la sola médica que me ayudaba  con la sequedad de los ojos. Y porque tengo confianza en usted, llevé a mí mamá para verla también. Tenía yo muchos otros doctores en el pasado, pero ellos no estaban dispuestos a dedicarles el tiempo necesario para ayudarme y a mí mamá.

D: Estoy agradecida oír sus palabras simpáticas. No sé, tal vez un día, regresaré al mundo de medicina, pero por ahora, tengo que utilizar el tiempo para explorar otras oportunidades. No sé lo que traiga el futuro. Dile a su mamá un saludo de mí. Les deseo a ustedes todo el mejor, especialmente la salud buena – para el cuerpo, incluir los ojos – y la mente.

P: Gracias, (mientras irse), le diré a ella. Buena suerte.


Algunos meses atrás, bueno, en realidad algunos años atrás, hice la decisión irme del ámbito médico. Bueno, no de la especialización de medicina completamente, solo medicina clínica. Por diez años después de la residencia médica (y la residencia duró tres años), yo trabajaba siempre para otros médicos – para sus practicas, según sus reglas. Aunque yo tenía el control de los casos de mis pacientes, no podía hacer muchos de mis decisiones propias en su cuidado. Yo debía someterme al gobierno, a los seguros médicos y a los jefes de la oficina. Normalmente, por ejemplo, un examen completo de los ojos – particularmente uno donde se han dilatado las pupilas – requiere a menos veinte minutos para realizar.  Pero, las clínicas médicas donde yo trabajaba me obligaron realizar un examen completo en no más que cinco a siete minutos. ¿Por qué? Un examen más corto significa hay espacio en el horario para más pacientes. Para mí, y para la mayoría de los médicos, eso no es bastante tiempo para pasar con el paciente: para oírle, para escucharle, para examinarle, para explicarle lo que tiene, para asegurarle. Los días de la relación tradicional (donde el médico, y no el gobierno, o el director de la oficina, o la compañía de seguros médicos, hizo las decisiones para el paciente) entre del médico y del paciente se acaban.

Ahora, hay un éxodo de médicos de la especialidad de medicina en los EEUU. Y, si el médico no puede funcionar en una manera independiente, para tener el control total sobre las decisiones de la salud de una persona, para ordenar las pruebas necesarias para diagnosticar correctamente, para recetar los medicamentos que son vitales para la supervivencia, entonces ella está obligada dejar de ser médico. Si no, ella continua funcionar como marioneta del sistema.

Yo continuo a dedicarme al aprendizaje, a la palabra escrita, a la edición de informes y artículos eruditos de médicos y científicos destinados para publicación en los diarios académicos. En esta manera, puedo continuar con la cultivación de conocimientos médicos en la forma más pura – sin obstrucciones de “la autoridad” y según mis principios y mi horario en mi propio tiempo.

Y, un día, si hay una revolución (y sí, es completamente posible con el sistema en su estado actual) y la practica de medicina vuelve al método original, tal vez volveré al mundo de medicine. Pero por ahora, no. Solo el futuro nos dirá lo que va a pasar.


(Disclaimer: the following paragraphs represent my opinion and are written in my Spanish – the Spanish of a native English-speaker, who tries every day to learn a little more Spanish than she knew the day before.)

Doctor: (after finishing the exam) I’m happy to see that this medication is working for you. You should return in six months for another eye checkup.

Patient: Yes, thank you. The drops have made my eyes feel better. My eyes don’t burn or sting anymore.

D: Fine. But one thing, when you return in six months for your appointment, unfortunately I will not be in this office.

P: You won’t be working here? What, are you moving?

D: I don’t know yet. I want to spend some time outside the medical arena for a while.

P: I’m disappointed to hear this news. You were the only doctor that helped me with my dry eyes. And because I have faith in you, I brought my mother in to see you also. I’ve  had many other doctors in the past, but they weren’t able to dedicate the time necessary to help me or my mother.

D: I am grateful to hear your kind words. I don’t know, perhaps one day I will return to medical, but for now, I have to use this time to explore other opportunities. I don’t know what the future will bring. Say hello to your mother for me. I wish you both all the best, especially good health – for the body, including the eyes – and the mind.

P: Thank you, (while leaving), I will tell her. Good luck.


Some months ago, well, truthfully some years ago, I made the decision to leave the medical field. Well, not completely from the specialty of medicine, only clinical practice.  For ten years after my medical residency (and the residency lasted three years), I always worked for other doctors – for their practices, according to their rules.  Although I had control over my patient cases, I couldn’t make many of my own decisions in their care. Normally, for example, a complete eye exam, particularly one that involves pupil dilation, requires at least twenty minutes to perform. But the practices where I worked forced me to do a complete exam in no more than five to seven minutes. Why? A shorter exam means there is room in the schedule for more patients. For me, and for the majority of doctors, that isn’t enough time to spend with the patient: to hear him, to listen to him, to examine him, to explain to him what he has and to reassure him. The days of the traditional relationship (where the doctor, and not the government, or the office manager or the medical insurance company, made the decisions for the patient) between a doctor and her patient are over.

Now, there is an exodus of physicians from the medical field in the United States. And, if the doctor cannot function in an independent manner, to have total control over decisions regarding the health of a person, to order the tests necessary to correctly diagnose, to write prescriptions for the medications that are vital to the person’s survival, then she is forced to cease being a physician. If not, she continues to function as a marionette of the system.

I continue to dedicate myself to learning, to the written word, to the editing of reports and scholarly articles by physicians and scientists meant for publication in academic journals. In this way, I can continue to cultivate medical knowledge in its purest form – without obstacles of the “authorities” and according to my principles and my schedule in my own time.

One day, if there is a revolution (and yes, it is completely possible with the system in its current state) and the practice of medicine returns to its original methods, perhaps I will return to the medical arena. But for now, no. Only time will tell what is going to happen.

NYC mural by Ashli Sisk

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


“Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there will always be someone to tell you that you are wrong.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

At any given time when I am preparing an entry for the readers of this blog, I’m usually working on two (or more) potential entries at the same time. My thoughts will shift from one topic to the next. I dedicate some time to one and then some to the other and before I know it, a month has gone by! A month that could have had four (or more) good, seminal blog entries, but due to my procrastination and topic-jumping, I squeak out one or two at best.

Well, this month of January 2018 is no exception. I was in the middle of writing a Spanish conversation I had with a patient for one of my Una conversación con un paciente series while balancing another entry meant to reflect on the growth and dominance of the Spanish language over the years in Miami-Dade County, Florida. I was set to complete one (or both) of them, and then, a set-back occurred.

It’s the kind of set-back that is painful for me to write about, but I feel it is important to share what happened with my readers. Important enough to stall my completion of the up and coming entries on which I’ve been working.

You know that I talk ad infinitum in this blog about certain recurring themes:

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes when learning a language, your efforts will be appreciated.”

“Don’t worry if your language skills aren’t perfect, it’s better to make an effort than not at all.”

“If a person sees you make an effort to speak his language, that person may be inspired to make efforts to communicate in your native language, too.”

“Language doesn’t have to be dividing, it can be uniting as it helps us learn a little bit more about each other with every communication.”

And so on and so on. I try to be encouraging. I try, even through my own moments of frustration with language learning, to show how I pick up and move on, learn from the situation, and hopefully grow.

I know that I’ve shared with you how the vast majority of my Spanish-speaking patients have appreciated my language efforts over the years. This is true—they’ve told me in Spanish! Again, my Spanish may not be perfect, but it is understandable and coherent enough to elicit the responses I have needed to provide exacting care to my patients. And, as proof that it works, my patients have done well.

Because of my successes using Spanish language with my ophthalmology patients, during my residency, I decided that I wanted to be helpful to the larger community of doctors, nurses and staff (for whom Spanish is not a native language) that provide care to Spanish-speaking patients and might benefit from some of the language tips and phrases I’ve acquired over the years.

One of the ways I’ve attempted to accomplish this is through this blog. But, in addition,  I wanted to make the Spanish I learned through daily patient interactions available in a guide form. I thought it would be a good idea to compile actual doctor-patient conversations I’ve had with patients while treating various eye problems and make those conversations available to other health care providers. It’s easier, in my opinion, to learn this way. Instead of memorizing lists of vocabulary, reading the back and forth speech between doctor and patient seems more realistic. This way, a doctor in an urgent care facility, when confronted with a Spanish-speaking patient with a corneal abrasion, would know what descriptive words to listen for and be able to faster hone in on the problem and its cause. Better communication equals better diagnosing, better  treatment and better patient.

So, I started this guide as a resident at NYU back in 2007. Then I graduated residency and entered a private practice in a suburban community. During this time,  I continued to add to the vocabulary/ conversations/ phrases that I had initially gathered as a resident. Before I knew it, I had compiled a complete set of doctor-patient dialogues – enough to be able to put a usable guide together for other eye care providers. I had my guidebook reviewed and edited by a bilingual (English/Spanish) medical editor. And then I self-published the book through Amazon Kindle KDP.

Almost immediately, I received a 5-star review from an appreciative doctor working with Spanish-speaking patients. And though the book is not a best-seller, listen, it was never meant to be! – it has been read and used by various readers over the last three years that it has been available online. It’s simply another reference made available to health care providers who want to expand their language and cultural repertoire. And the book’s 5-star rating has held. No one has had anything negative to say about my piece – well, up until now, anyway.

The other day I was updating my resume and wanted to include the Amazon link to this guide that I wrote (incidentally it is called “Eye,MD Dialogue: Ophthalmology in Spanish ~ Oftalmología en Español”). However, when I went to the actual site to copy the link, I noticed that the book rating had dropped significantly. It went from 5 stars to 2.5. I saw that someone left a 1-star review, and even before I read it, chills went down my spine and I felt an immediate sense of dread. This is a short and simple guidebook of acquired phrases I’ve gleaned directly from patient experiences meant for an audience of doctors. Who could possibly find something wrong with my experiences and, honestly, why?

The person’s review was short but not sweet. She said something to the effect of, ‘don’t buy this book, the Spanish is wrong, the author used Google translate, this is not how Spanish people talk, don’t waste your money’. Smug, full of ill-will and honestly, totally wrong. I thought to myself, if I had used Google translate to produce this guide, I would have completed it a long time ago! It would have been written, edited and published when I was a resident and not taken the 8 years that it actually took to compile all that I learned from patients.

When I got up the courage to read the review again, I saw that it was given by an unverified purchaser. In Amazon Kindle terminology, that’s pretty much akin to a bogus review. But bogus review or not, it brought down my ratings. The review is full of lies, but the thing that scares me is that people, for some reason, believe lies. Some people believe lies before they believe the truth, if they ever believe the truth. The bottom line is, reading that review was like being hit with a bullet. Anyone with a gunshot wound stops right in her tracks, not moving forward or backward. Not moving at all.

It really hurt me. Especially when I’ve been trying so earnestly to improve my Spanish language skills everyday. Worse yet, it made me begin to doubt myself. Before that review, I was feeling confident. My Spanish is great! Maybe not perfect all of the time, but I have learned how to communicate effectively! I can help others communicate in Spanish, too! After that review, I wanted to crawl up in a hole and hide. Am I really that bad? I know not all the phrases sound like a native Spanish-speaker, but they’re not meant to sound that way. I even explicitly say this in the book’s prologue. They are written from the perspective of a native English-speaker trying to communicate with her Spanish-speaking patients. It’s not meant to be soap opera dialogue or a movie script.

I am writing this blog entry because I want to give you, my readers, powerful advice on what to do when you encounter set-backs like this during language learning, how to shake it off, how to not care about it. But I couldn’t think of any good advice. I even stepped away from this particular entry for a time, to see if I could make sense of it all. I’ve come back today to complete this entry not having found any great wisdom to impart. I don’t have sage words that will cloak you in a protective armament. The conclusion I have come to is simply: people will criticize your language skills and it will hurt. It’s ok that it hurts. But that hurt (or embarrassment or disappointment or anger) shouldn’t stop us from moving forward toward our goals. There will be those who appreciate our efforts along the way, and those that choose to criticize those efforts.

Sadly, it’s not uncommon in any language-learning scenario. I took the following criticism left for a Slovak-speaker directly from the comment section of a YouTube video:

“I, as a Slovak, can tell that the Slovak guy felt way more comfortable while speaking in English, probably because, as he said, he grew up in America. His Slovak was kind of awkward, actually. The structure of sentences sometimes felt like those of non-native speaker of Slovak.”

My response to his statement is, So? And? You call his speech ‘awkward’, but you understood him, didn’t you?

And I remember one time when I was in college, native Spanish-speakers criticized the Spanish of an American student (who was bilingual and Latina). They were basically telling her in Spanish that her Spanish didn’t sound ‘like a native’. She answered by saying she knew enough to have a conversation – to understand and be understood – but it didn’t satisfy them.

I don’t know why this is. What makes these native speakers feel so perfect, so pure, so wonderful that they and only they hold exclusive rights to speak their language? Why don’t they respect someone for learning, for trying? Do they feel it’s an attack on their culture? Do they fear losing language exclusivity? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but would appreciate input from my blog readers.

I’ve decided the next time I hear someone tell me, You don’t sound like a native speaker, I’m going to answer something like this: Well, I’m not a native speaker, and I don’t want to be. I’m a native English-speaker who is learning everyday, and you can understand me, so, I must be doing something right.


irisoidis.(2017). Re: How mutually intelligible is Polish and Slovak? Polish Slovak conversation.[Video file]. Retrieved from:

Courtesy: Ostdrossel 2018 from American Bird Conservancy
Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Listen First, Read Later: Back at the Beginning

It’s hard to speak fluently if you spend all your time reading in silence.
                                                                                                            -Denis Ivanov

When you’re first learning a language, it is better to hear it first before you see it in written form. You want to be able to associate the objects in your environment with the sounds that represent them. Otherwise, when you see something around you or hear something,  you will first have to think of the word in your mind, then you must translate it, then lastly you think of the object being referenced.

Did that make sense?! Let me explain...

To give you an example, I’ll start with my own experience. My primary language is English. When I started learning Spanish at age eleven in school, I learned the Spanish words that coincided with English words, usually presented in long vocabulary lists like this:

the table=la mesa

the couch=el sofá

the chair=la silla

and so on and so forth.

I read the words in a vocabulary book. And, yes, we (the other students and I) read them aloud, too, but seeing the lists was the first introduction to these words. It’s not as if the teacher pointed to a chair and said simply, “silla”. We didn’t look at a chair and see in our mind’s eye “silla” and hear in our inner ear “silla”.  Instead this is what we saw:

silla ---> chair

I’m thinking back to some of the first English words I remember learning as a young child. No, it wasn’t “mom”, or “dad”, or a color of the rainbow, or a barnyard animal. It was “George Washington”!

I mentioned early on in this blog (see the entry Beginnings)  that I grew up in a two-family home with my parents and my grandparents (maternal). When I was a preschool-age baby, my parents and grandmother were working full-time, but my grandfather was retired. He was home and took care of me until my mother got home from work. My grandparents were very big on colonial America. They had some form of yester-year memorabilia in every square inch of their house: a Paul Revere statue, a Thomas Jefferson decanter, a replica of the Liberty Bell, and, of course, a rather large wall plaque of George Washington. My grandfather carried me on his shoulders, pointed to the objects and said their names. “George Washington. George Washington.” But remember, every time he said those words, I wasn’t seeing the actual words “George Washington”. I saw this:

The fact of the matter is, when we are exposed to language before we start school, we never see the words we learn. We learn the sounds that describe the things in our environment. We hear a sound and we know instinctively and immediately what it is. We can see the object, and practically taste and feel the object. That’s language. That’s communication.

But later on in school, we see what these sounds look like on paper and we learn to read and write. And we continue to read and we continue to pick up new vocabulary this way.

The problem is, this is not true language communication. This is why it is so hard for students learning a second or third language in school to communicate with native speakers of that language – even after years of school-based study.

Donovan Nagel, creator of The Mezzofanti Guild, a website dedicated to linguistics and language learning, explains this concept more in-depth in his blog article, “How important is reading for learning to speak a language? Not very. Here’s why...”. He states that, “Language is 100% spoken. What we read...on paper is a representation of those sounds.” As a result of this, he goes on to say that simply reading words will not make you a fluent speaker (and I’m adding here, will not make you a good listener, either).

Mr. Nagel continues in the article, encouraging language-learners to practice a skill known as “chunking”.  This means, listening to audio conversations in the target language repeatedly (without reading!) and trying to use what you hear before you even understand the grammar or every vocabulary word. He insists people would have much more success on the road to fluency using this method instead of reading and memorizing the written word.

What Mr. Nagel has to say in this article rings very true to me, and I’ll explain why. As I said, I started my Spanish studies at about age 10 or 11. I learned vocabulary by reading long lists of words written in Spanish, along with their English counterpart. My studies continued that way- all with written text in Spanish- throughout junior high, high school and college.  I had memorized quite a bit of vocabulary and felt that I really knew the language well. But the moment people started speaking Spanish, I could barely understand them. Instead of understanding the foreign sounds coming out of their mouths, I saw a few words here and there that I could pick out. Words that I had to first translate in my head into English before I could understand. Said a different way, the sounds had no meaning to me, even though I knew what the words meant. This is because my language education focused too much on what was written down, and not enough on oral expression.

Frustrated, I often thought to myself, “When will I reach a point when I won’t have to think so hard when I’m having a conversation in Spanish? When will I understand naturally? When will I respond only with my thoughts and feelings and not have to think about the words and the sentence structure?” Well, after reading Mr. Nagel’s article and reflecting on my own experiences,  I finally have the answer to those queries: never. least not until I let go of what is written down and instead simply listen to what is being said.

This is truly a eureka moment for me! In essence, I’ve been studying Spanish (written, written, written) for 31 years and though I communicate better now in my 31st year than in my 1st year, I still feel at a loss in some spoken conversations. I always felt more comfortable reading and writing the language, which is why I feel much more competent as a Spanish translator rather than a Spanish interpreter. And I spent years thinking it was because my brain was wired to understand written language better. I blamed a genetic flaw. A genetic tendency.  (There were for a time –now disproven- education theories that stated that some people learn better by reading/writing vs. speaking/listening. No study has ever proven this to be true. Now we know the reason.).

Granted, during our first few years of life, ie. birth through 3 yrs of age or so, our brain is pruning away unnecessary connections, removing redundancies and leaving behind neuron connections that serve in our survival. When we grow up around one language, our brain maintains neurological connections to understanding the sounds involved in communicating in that language, and eliminates foreign sound connections. This is the reason why learning a language after this neurological “plastic” period – as older children or adults – is difficult to become accustomed to hearing new and different sounds and conversation flow of a foreign language. But this can be overcome, simply by doing more listening and more familiarizing oneself with these new and different sounds. It is not the primary reason why communicating in a non-native language is difficult. The real reason is: we must associate objects with sound first before we associate them with their written representations.

It is now the end of 2017, a time when we make our new year’s resolutions. In 2018, I am going to resolve to do much more listening and speaking to increase my communication skills in Spanish and the other languages I want to learn. It is my hope to add French to that list, as well as Croatian, the language of my husband and his family.  Linguistically, I am going to turn back the hands of time and be a child again, doing the only thing a child can do in an effort to interact with her environment: hear, listen, mimic and speak.

What are your language goals for 2018?  


Ivanov, D. (2015, July 9). 9 beliefs 99 percent unsuccessful language learners have. [Web log post]. Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Nagel, D. (2015, July 2). How important is reading for learning to speak a language? Not very. Here’s why... [Web log post]. Retrieved December 30, 2017, from

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Patient Correspondence Letter 2

This is an example of a letter I wrote on behalf of a fellow general ophthalmologist, my practice colleague, for his patient. The patient, a young woman, was found to have papilledema during a routine eye exam.  For any non-MD readers of my blog, papilledema describes a condition of bilateral swollen optic nerves as a result of increased intracranial pressure. This is a dangerous condition that if left untreated has very negative implications on not only the patient’s sight but on the patient’s life. As a result of this finding, she was promptly referred to a neurologist for the appropriate testing and management. Unfortunately, the patient never kept the neurology appointment and the administrative staff  made the referring ophthalmologist aware of this.

In these cases, it is very important to reach out to the patient and explain, once again, the importance of following up with the treatment and management of such conditions. The patient here needed to understand that her eyes—and her health—were at grave risk.

When sending such correspondence letters, the communication should be done in a language the patient understands. As this patient was Spanish-speaking with limited English proficiency, this letter was written in Spanish plain language (aka non-technical Spanish language).  For purposes of this blog entry, I have provided a translation of the letter in English as well.

*names have been changed for privacy purposes

Estimada Sra. Méndez*:

Recibí recientemente un informe de la Dra. Smith*, la neuróloga.  La carta me informó que usted se suponía tener una cita de revisión con ella después del examen conmigo, pero le faltó la cita.  Usted recuerda nuestra conversación durante su examen aquí, cuando le dije que usted tiene nervios ópticos bien inflamados y hinchados.  Esto significa que usted tiene alta presión dentro del cráneo y necesita más pruebas por la neuróloga (incluye una punción lumbar) y medicamentos para tratar y curar esta condición.

También, la Dra. Smith me dijo que usted no ha recogido de la farmacia las pastillas que ella le recetó. Ella me dijo que ella ha tratado llamarla muchas veces, pero no podía contactar a usted.
Esta presión que tiene en el cerebro es muy peligrosa para su salud y la salud de sus nervios ópticos.  Si no recibe el tratamiento para bajar la presión del cráneo, puede quedar ciega por esta condición.  Por favor, le ruego que llame usted la oficina de la neuróloga inmediatamente cuando recibe esta carta, para hacer el examen de la espina y la punción lumbar y también, le solicito que recoja los medicamentos de la farmacia.

Después de que empieza usted el medicamento y tiene el examen de la espina, necesita regresar aquí por otro campo visual para hacer un examen de seguimiento de los nervios ópticos. Si tiene preguntas, llame esta oficina en cualquier momento. Si nos necesita para hacer la cita para usted con la neuróloga, nos complace hacer esto para usted.

Gracias por su paciencia y atención en este sentido. Recuerda, la salud de los ojos y del cuerpo están en juego.

Dr. Johnson  


Dear Mrs. Méndez:

Recently I received a report from Dr. Smith, the neurologist.  The letter informed me that you were supposed to have a follow-up appointment with her after your exam with me, but you missed that appointment.  You remember our conversation during your exam here, when I told you that you have very inflamed and swollen optic nerves.  This means that you have elevated pressure inside your head and you need more tests by the neurologist (including a lumbar puncture) and medication to treat and correct this condition.

Also, Dr. Smith told me that you have not yet picked up the tablets from the pharmacy that she prescribed for you. She told me that she has tried many times to call you, but has been unable to contact you.

This pressure that you have inside your head is very dangerous for your health and the health of your optic nerves.  If you do not receive treatment to lower this pressure, you can become blind from this condition.  Please, I ask you to call the neurologist’s office immediately when you receive this letter, to have the spinal exam and lumbar puncture, and I ask that you also pick up the medications from your pharmacy.

After you begin the medication and you have your spinal exam, you need to return here for another visual field test to follow up on the optic nerves.  If you have questions, call this office at any time. If you need us to make the appointment with the neurologist for you, it would give us pleasure to do so.

Thank you for your patience and attention in this matter.  Remember, the health of your eyes and your body are at stake.

Dr. Johnson

The Eye Exam 2017