Language School Again

For simple sentences, especially with globalization, many western languages have one-to-one translatable words and constructs.  Another words, if I want to say, “Give me the red ball.” You can generally find and put together that same meaning nearly word for word. But sometimes when you translate from one language to another you are presented with a choice (or robbed of a choice) that you did not have in the original language.

For instance in English I might say, “Take a deep breath,” to my patient. But in Spanish in order to give that command, I must choose whether I will use the formal or the more familiar conjugation of the command (there is no neutral).  So rather than one-to-one, the meaning translates one-to-two. I used to think that most Spanish speakers were so gracious and appreciative of those who took the effort to try and speak their language that details like formal or informal conjugation were largely inconsequential.

But even though the cultures of Latin America are often warm, welcoming, and appreciative. Language does not simply speak to our rational brains. Language, with all its facets from grammar to tone, inflection to facial expressions communicates so much more than “Take a deep breath.” You can imagine how the same command can communicate respect or disrespect, affection or uncaring, frustration or “I have time for you.” Now imagine if your language had grammatical constructs that made you decide between respectfully distant vs chummy.

Case in point – I spent some time in Romania and Bulgaria where people typically shake their head side-to-side to mean yes. I quickly came to know this piece of information. But in my short time among the people there I never ceased to be at least somewhat confused each time someone would say “yes” or “da” and then shake their head in the pattern that my brain understood to mean “no.” Even though my rational mind knew that shaking the head back and forth meant “yes,” my ingrained subconscious perception could not be so easily changed.

So although I still appreciate how gracious the Honduran people are when I fumble my verb conjugations. I am becoming aware that a listener cannot always control their subconscious reaction to language patterns that are in-grained from early childhood.

This is a list of all the possible forms of a single verb ‘Hablar,’which means ‘to speak.’

There are other important language differences that are even more difficult for me to grasp than strict one-to-two vocab or grammar changes. These are the internal resonances and more abstract conceptual differences that cannot be taught by a dictionary or captured by a translation program.  For instance, the other day I was sitting in Church and the sermon was being translated from English to Spanish.  The preacher was relating how our Christian journey was so similar to the journey that the early American pioneers made in covered wagons to settle the West. How they banded together to protect and support one another, crossing treacherous terrain, deserts, and rivers to arrive finally in a place where they could be safe, settle and make a better living for themselves and their families.

Unbeknownst to the preacher, any decent translation of that story into Spanish in present day Honduras resonates inescapably with the language of undocumented immigrant caravans fleeing Honduras, banding together, traversing deserts and rivers, to try and find a better life in the USA. This was an unintentional parallel, completely invisible to anyone who has not been immersed in Spanish language conversations and news pieces about the issue.

Finally, I think you have almost enough background to understand why I am writing this blog. Let me explain to you one more Spanish grammar difference: Spanish has very specific rules and ways of expressing something called moods. Moods convey whether you view what your saying as fact or possibility, question or command, etc.

In Spanish, we almost all begin by learning the indicative mood- statements of fact. “The patient has pneumonia.” “Your child has a fever caused by a virus.” But to communicate one’s own emotional perception (desires, doubts, wishes, and possibilities) you have to incorporate specific grammatical structures that change each verb in slight but distinctive ways (and this change is dependent on the individual verb, so each and every verb can change in its own special way)

As a doctor I unfortunately, rarely get to deal in absolutes (meaning the indicative mood). The questions that I get almost always demand a more complicated answer. Questions such as: “Is there any chance he could get worse?” “Are there any symptoms that should make me bring my baby back to hospital?” “Does this medicine have any effects?” “Will this treatment cure me?”

The best answers to each of these questions includes the use of the subjunctive or conditional verbs (because the answers refers to things that are not yet known to have happened). I will answer each of the above questions as I would in English:

-I think he will get better, but in rare cases people can worsen.

-Your baby appears healthy and I expect she will gain weight, grow, and develop normally. But if she isn’t gaining weight, has a fever or a seizure bring her back immediately.

-Yes, all medicines can have side effects. But I doubt that you’re likely to experience any side effects if you take the medicines as I have prescribed them.

-I hope and pray that this treatment will cure you. But I cannot tell you for certain what the future holds.

This is brain defect I recently diagnosed in a 3 year old boy who came into our ER with seizures. I had to tell his family that most children with this defect stop developing at around 3 and need continuous care and anti-seizure medicines for the rest of their short lives, but occasionally children develop near normally despite the defect.

My problem is that all those answers are still really hard for me to put into Spanish in a fluid and clear way. I have work arounds and I can often make myself understood. But these are critical grammatical points, that can make the difference between what sounds like a compassionate, callous, confused, or confident reply. When dealing with particularly delicate what ifs and generally sad possibilities I don’t want to sound heavy handed (indicative used incorrectly) or confusing.

Case-in-Point: Imagine if you were very worried about your child and your pediatrician in a tone of compassionate reassurance said, “He will probably get better, but will not.” Even if your rational brain knew what the pediatrician was trying to say. Your subconscious reaction would be at best confused, and at worst distrustful.

Perhaps you will remember, that we started our journey with Samaritan’s purse a little more than two and a half years ago. We traveled to the Spanish Language Institute in Honduras, with the intention of studying Spanish for 6 months.

The walk to language school in Siguatepeque, Honduras

Six weeks into those studies, we traveled across the country to Hospital Loma de Luz because Bethany was nearing her due date and we wanted to give birth with providers we knew and trusted. Unfortunately, the day after Hannah was born COVID shut down the world. Including travel within Honduras. Due to the needs of our Hospital and our inability to return, I began working.

The birth of Hannah at Hospital Loma de Luz

As we near the completion of our contract with Samaritan’s Purse they have agreed to let us go back to language school for the month of July. We are excited and thankful for this opportunity to improve our Spanish and prepare ourselves for longer-term work at Hospital Loma de Luz.

-Please pray for our family as we strive to improve our Spanish, and communicate well with our friends, neighbors, and patients.
-Pray for our children that they will have receptive and eager attitudes towards learning Spanish.
-Pray for Nathan, that he would be able to memorize and consistently apply grammar rules (which can be so important)
-Praise God that Axel (my 4 year old patient with refractory nephrotic syndrome is almost completely off medicines and doing well)
-Praise be to God I was able to give my schizophrenic patient his long-acting antipsychotic injection early this morning.
-Pray that he will be willing and able to continue receiving these injections- and more importantly that by God’s grace and good medicine that he will be able to sleep normally and be helpful rather than destructive in his home and family.
-Pray for our Hospital and its leadership, that we would have wisdom, grace, and kingdom focused purpose as we work and serve together.
-Praise God our Hospital is coming up on its 20th anniversary operating here in Honduras
-Pray for our family and Bethany who is pregnant with our 5th child (this is your reward for reading all the way to the last prayer request – Thank you for your prayers and willingness to be with us in spirit).

Grace & Peace,

Nathan Gilley & Family

Gilley Family Photo by Stephen Rudge

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are not the views of Samaritan’s Purse or World Medical Mission.

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3 thoughts on “Language School Again”

  1. As if going to medical school wasn’t hard enough, as if traveling to a foreign country leaving family and friends behind wasn’t hard enough, then to learn how not to offend by using the wrong phrasing, what a challenge. Wow, I never realized. May God continue to bless you all on this mission. (I think I would be saying I’m sorry a lot.) Lol


    1. Yes, apologizing often and being humble enough to realize that your own language skills could be part of the problem is essential.

      Thanks for taking the time to read our blog and respond Vicky.


  2. Nathan, Thanks for your letter to us….yes, I did read it all the way to the last prayer request and we will be praying for Bethany and all of you…..Congratulations on the announcement of your fifth child….. Praying for you over the next few difficult months… Blessings in Christ, Jack and Brenda

    Sent from my iPad



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