Bilingual is Better

This is the time of year when our family has multiple visits to the doctor. The kids are getting their annual physicals for school and we are catching up on dental appointments and the like. I’ve spent a good amount of time in waiting rooms in the past month. A doctor’s office presents an opportunity for people-watching, and I’ve been surprisingly interested by what I’ve seen as I watch families doing nothing more than waiting together, filling out forms, and chit-chatting… in Spanish.

Though Orlando is bursting with Latino culture, I am starting to notice what a significant change this demographic has made to our most basic activities. Instead of filling in one sheet of paper for kids’ health history, we now have to sift through several pages because all the questions are duplicated in Spanish. Still, the parents I see in the waiting room sometimes have to have their children help out with understanding medical terminology, even if it has been translated. Dialect and slang can interfere with reading well in Spanish, and the extent to which this could affect someone’s ability to understand the medical care his/her child receives is a concern I never thought of before.

Also, I have observed that the majority of nurses and physicians’ assistants I see now are Latino. It seems that the healthcare field has absorbed a huge number of first- and second-generation Americans. While this means there are long-term jobs available to this population, it also seems to represent a complete change in job description and expectations for some positions. In my observation, bilingual nurses are spending double the time with Spanish-speaking parents that they do with English-speaking ones — sometimes to discuss health matters, and sometimes just to chat about food, family and home countries. I have recently wondered, upon watching a nurse spend an extra 15 minutes talking in the hallway with a Spanish-speaking family, if I should just pretend I don’t speak English so that I can get that sort of attention to my questions.

Along with the positive change in the availability of social and medical services for Americans with subpar English skills comes a culture-based camaraderie that has leached into the professional world. Although I am supportive of having Spanish speakers and forms available in a medical office, I am struck by how annoyed I sometimes feel when a mere demonstration of need for translation means that someone will get better service than I will.

It’s an ongoing challenge for me to stand on the border between Latinos and Americans. Having been part of more than one Latino family and having spoken Spanish for a while, I have a soft spot for their plight and believe they deserve the same treatment as all other Americans. However, as a gringa, I sense that certain boundaries are being ignored. This is especially true when I discover that I’ve only been sitting in a waiting room for so long because someone else is having a personal conversation. Furthermore, they likely assume that I don’t understand that they aren’t talking about anything medical.

Am I being too sensitive to the familiar style of Latino culture in a place of business or is this a genuine example of cultural preference?

{Photo by brettneilson}

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