No Hablo Espanol

      I don’t speak Spanish or any other language other than English for that matter.   I’ve always worked and lived in the United States and assumed it would not be a problem knowing only my native English language.  And then I started to work in a pharmacy.  

      I’m stubborn to some extent.  I took only the foreign language classes that were required in high school to meet my graduation requirements.  At that level French was my language of choice.   I purged anything I might have learned when I arrived at college.   It’s a shame too because French was fun to speak. 

      At the undergraduate level in college I had a brief moment of reasoning where I thought it was a good idea to take Spanish to meet my undergraduate degree requirements.  My reasoning was that I was probably going into a healthcare related field and that knowing Spanish might be beneficial to me.  Seems reasonable until you learn that I dropped that Spanish 101 class on the first day literally before my seat was even warm.  Oh well, it was back to French until I graduated.  

     But now that I’ve graduated from pharmacy school and worked in a pharmacy for years I can see the light so to speak. I am learning that it is important for me to be able to communicate with my patients and customers.  I am also learning that it can be unbelievably frustrating when I can’t communicate with them because we don’t speak the same language. 

     Now I will admit that I’ve always had this bad attitude regarding learning a foreign language for work.   My reasoning has been that anyone living in the United States had a responsibility to at least make an effort to learn our language: English.  I guess I just didn’t think it was my responsibility to learn other languages simply to communicate with customers because I thought that was putting an excessive burden on me.   Shouldn’t they be making the effort to learn our language?

      But now I am having a sort of change of heart.  I am starting to learn the value of knowing Spanish (or any other foreign language for that matter) for the simple fact that it comes in handy at work sometimes.  I might have to actually try to learn Spanish so I can effectively communicate with Spanish speaking customers at work.  Communication is critical and when you have a language barrier with a patient or customer it can make even the simplest task of telling them how to take their medications incredibly difficult. 

     I’ll give a great example from work recently to show my point.  I was working at a pharmacy with a student that knew Spanish well.  I had a customer come in who only spoke Spanish who had some questions about some over the counter medications for her daughter.  The woman could not speak English but she relayed to my co-worker what her problem was in Spanish.   Because I had this technician with me that knew Spanish we were able to write out some directions for her to give her daughter a couple of over the counter cold and cough medications. 

      I thought about what I would have done to try and help this patient had that technician that spoke Spanish not been working with me.  I have serious doubts about my ability to even understand that customer’s problem.  And you can forget me being able to communicate my solutions to her.  It would have been a real mess.  I would have had to try and find someone from the front store staff who hopefully would have known Spanish. 

      So after years of being more closed minded and stubborn I am actually opening up to the idea of say taking a community college course in the evenings to learn at least a minimal working knowledge of the Spanish language.  I want to at least be able to ask patients basic key questions we always deal with in the pharmacy like “do you have allergies?” or “do you have any insurance?” or “are there any questions about this medication?” 

      My employer has translation functions built into our filling software so I could technically print prescription labels in Spanish for customers if they need that service.  But I still don’t know the language and I am relying on a computer for an accurate translation.   It would be much better for me as a pharmacist to at least have a little Spanish knowledge.  What if that translation function at work is wrong?  How would I know the difference?

     Call it maturing a little as I grow older.  Call it realizing something that should have been obvious to me years ago.  Even call it a desperation move out of frustration but I think I am finally realizing that learning Spanish will help me be a better pharmacist and serve Spanish speaking customers more effectively. 

     So now I am trying to figure out the best way to try and learn a little Spanish.   My guess is that I will sign up for a class or two in the coming months.  And I hope this old dog can learn a new trick and pick up at least a little Spanish.  Because it just might come in handy at work! 

The Redheaded Pharmacist

8 Comments to “No Hablo Espanol”

  1. By murgatr, November 15, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    If you have a background in French, then Spanish (and even Italian) are Romance languages that you should be able to pick up pretty quickly, as some of the words sound and are spelled very similar to each other in all three languages. I was forced to take 6 years of French in Canada, and had no trouble understanding Italian and some Spanish when I traveled later on.


    Pharm.Tech. RDC ’06


  2. By RxBoy, November 15, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

    I’ve been called ignorant for saying it, but I really think that if you are going to live in our country you should learn to speak English. I actually have come to that opinion after working in the pharmacy. My store is located in a neighborhood that has lots of non-English speaking people. It is not uncommon for me to encounter people who speak Spanish, Italian, Polish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Albanian, Ukranian,and Hindi in one day. Many of them can hardly speak English at all. I have a problem with this because they often times get angry with me for not being able to communicate with them.

    I once had a guy hand me a prescription that was so sloppily written I could not even make out his name. I asked him to spell his name and the only thing he could say to me was “No speak English”. We ended up having to give it back to him and he stormed out thinking we refused to help him, but we couldn’t because he couldn’t tell us his name. We once had a woman who’s Medicaid was rejecting and she needed to contact her caseworker. Unfortunately, she only spoke Laotian and no English. Again, what can we do in this situation?

    Some people say that companies as large as us should have staff available in our call center to assist those who speak other languages. But I dont’ think it’s fair to expect us to have people available to speak over a dozen different languages at all time just incase someone comes in who doesn’t speak English. I personally think the burden should be on them to have someone available who can translate. I think that if they come in to the pharmacy on their own, the law should state that they are voluntarily waiving their right to be counseled and that we will not be held liable for any harm they suffer if they take their medicine incorrectly or if they take it with something that causes harm.

    Call me ignorant if you want, but we work in a profession where even small errors can have dire consequences. If we cannot ask a person the necessary questions and properly counsel them on their medicines because they cannot speak English, that is a very dangerous situation. I always wonder about those who think it is wrong to expect people to learn English. Who do they think should be liable if someone is harmed or killed because we were unable to give them proper instructions for using their medications?


  3. By KCflacpht, November 16, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    One of the things I liked about working at Wags was that we had a function in our computers to take care of this situation. If you had someone come in that spoke- say Russian- you could go online and find a Rph/Tech somewhere signed on in the system that spoke the language. You then just called the store and had them talk to the patient for you. Down here in Florida while the vast majority are Spanish-speaking, we have a University close by that have quite a large foreign student population. Saved our collective butts countless times I have to admit.

    But like you- I’m in the process of learning ( or in my case re-learning) Spanish. Down here it’s almost a necessity. Though I agree that they really should try to learn English, or at least bring someone with them that does.
    ( However- I have noticed that the interpretors that ARE brought are oftimes the patient’s 7 year old child. Which doesn’t really work either- Sigh!)


  4. By lovinmyjob, November 16, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    I once took a class titled “Spanish for Retail Pharmacy”. It was a self-study course that I found advertised in the back of one of our trade journals. It was an excellant course and I learned alot. Unfortunately, as the saying goes “if ya don’t use it ya lose it”. I envy our new generation of pharmacists who have seen the necessity and gone the extra mile to learn something that was not required just to meet the needs of those they would be serving. I hate having to translate through an 8 year old who is the only one in the family who speaks any English. “Dumbing-down” medical jargon is challenging enough but doing it to an 8 year-old level is next to impossible.
    I encourage you to follow through with this desire to learn this language. The need is not going to go away and everything indicates that it will only become more of a necessity. One way to learn some basic phrases is to print dummy labels using your translation function. I’ve picked-up a few things that way. One real problem is dialect. We have translation on our system too, but it is often so different from the dialect the person speaks that it makes no sense to them. The other problem is: can they read? It sounds basic but if they came from a small province in Mexico they may not be literate. Keep that in mind.


  5. By SyrichRX, November 16, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    Expecting the customers to speak English isn’t ignorant. If you live in this country, you need to speak this language…fluently. I wouldn’t move to Russia without being able to speak Russian. There are chains that have translation services at a call center, but that just has to take too long.

    “Call me ignorant if you want, but we work in a profession where even small errors can have dire consequences. If we cannot ask a person the necessary questions and properly counsel them on their medicines because they cannot speak English, that is a very dangerous situation.”

    -I agree.


  6. By The Redheaded Pharmacist, November 17, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

    I guess I’ve just come to the sad reality that there are many people who are permanently living in the United States that have no intention of ever learning the English language. And some of those people are patients in my pharmacy from time to time. If it were me I would feel obligated to learn a minimal working knowledge of the national language of the country I moved to permanently but as it stands I must be the one to at least make an effort to learn a foreign language to solve some communication barriers with certain patient populations. Am I happy about it? No! But are those patients willing to learn English so I don’t have to worry about picking up Spanish myself? Apparently not. That reality has made me change my viewpoint and now I feel like taking a Spanish class might help me to better serve my patients so that is what I plan on doing in the near future.


  7. By павел, November 20, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    У нас в москве такой проблемы нет. в принципе город многонационален, но русский на бытовом уровне знают все.


  8. By The Redheaded Pharmacist, November 20, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

    У нас в москве такой проблемы нет. в принципе город многонационален, но русский на бытовом уровне знают все.

    “As for us in Moscow this problem do not have. In principle the city is multinational, but everything know Russian at the everyday level.” – That is the rough translation I got from a couple of translation websites for the last comment.

    The translation probably isn’t fully accurate but I do get the gist of their message. Basically, the idea is that while Moscow is considered multinational and multicultural everyone still speaks Russian. That is how I think it should be in America. Being multicultural and multinational is great but there should still be a common language that everyone speaks to connect all the people in a nation. In the case of the United States that language should be English. And when a patient is getting prescriptions filled communication is very important so there isn’t any errors resulting from communication barriers between the patient and the pharmacy staff.


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