Why language matters

Dr. Boris Martinez, a full-time doctor and research coordinator for WK (and a great salsa dancer!), reflects on the importance of language in the work of MHA | WK



Dr. Boris Martinez shares his thoughts and experiences:


I started as a full-time physician and research coordinator for WK almost one year ago, and a lot of things have changed since then… Within this year I have built strong and meaningful relationships with people in the several Mayan communities into which WK has expanded, due to the projects my team is working on.

When I got here I was not able to communicate in Kaqchikel (the Mayan language of the area). Step by step with the help of the staff, I learned some words and began to create short sentences. Sometimes I just provoked laughter from the people around, because I made a mistake or because I said something that has a different connotation.

I remember asking one old woman that kindly prepared food for us, “Achike’ ab’i ri mes?” That question, although I didn’t know it at the time, doesn’t really make sense: it literally translates to, “What is your name your cat?” She answered “Maria” and I started to call the cat Maria. Everyone laughed, and she turned red. I was embarrassed and felt bad, and my coworker apologized for me.

That was when I decided to really improve my language skills. Each day, my coworkers would write a new word or phrase for me and teach me the correct pronunciation. It was very basic Kaqchikel, but it helped a lot.

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I was born in Huehuetenango, another department in Guatemala, and even though there are indigenous Maya in the capital city of Huehue, I didn’t have the opportunity to interact with these populations and had never learned a Mayan language. As in other regions of the country, there is a lot of discrimination towards indigenous people, and it is not a “necessity” to learn one of the 21 different Mayan languages.

That isn’t true in reverse, however. For the indigenous Maya, learning Spanish – the official language of Guatemala – is essentially obligatory, otherwise they will be locked out of the system.

Only a few years ago, the education system began to make it obligatory to learn a Mayan language during elementary school. This wasn’t the case when I was a kid, at least where I grew up. Even in more indigenous communities, education was all in Spanish, and children were forced to learn a completely different language and be immersed in a completely different culture. They were learning that to succeed, they should be able to speak Spanish, without any accent, in order to avoid discrimination and racism.

For most of the Guatemalan Maya population, not speaking Spanish also means they cannot access the healthcare system and receive the care they need, because the system is run in Spanish, and the majority of doctors and nurses are monolingual Spanish speakers.

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After a few more months working with WK I was able to learn more words and to dig more deeply into the grammar and understand how the words are constructed and how, by making some small changes, you can say something totally different.

I would say that I am still learning Kaqchikel, that I understand more than I can actually say, but now I am able to have conversations with people in the communities. The other day I performed my first clinical encounter with a patient in Kaqchikel, and I was able to understand his complaints, and then, with a little more difficulty, to explain his condition to the patient. Then I made sure someone else (a native speaker) was able to ask the patient about the condition and explain the therapeutic plan, so there were no risks about taking the medications.

Learning a new language can be difficult and challenging, and you need to put all your heart into it in order to learn, but for me this is not just the luxury of learning. Learning Kaqchikel means a lot to me because I am able to talk to my patients, and they feel more comfortable in a language they can explain themselves better in.

Every time I make the effort to talk with my patients in Kaqchikel, they are really thankful that I am showing them respect and listening to their needs. They always have more to say in Kaqchikel than in Spanish because they don’t feel comfortable speaking in Spanish. I feel like they have more trust.

I’m making an effort to overcome the barriers that my indigenous patients always have had to deal with. For some of them, the idea of a ladino-Guatemalan doctor wanting to learn their language does not make any sense. Some of them have told me they never saw someone trying to do it before.

I know that I’m still learning, but my interest in learning Kaqchikel increases every time I can speak with another patient. I enjoy being able to achieve the same level of confidence from my Kaqchikel-speaking patients as if I were seeing a Spanish-speaking patient in Spanish.

What I mean is that language should not be a barrier to our patients and if they feel more comfortable speaking their language we should make an effort to learn it.