“You will definitely get a lot out of it, regardless of what you study”: learning medical Spanish

Joseph North
Tuesday 7 May 2024

The University of St Andrews summer opportunities in France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland offer undergraduate students a chance to improve their language skills in French, German and Spanish. Some of our partner universities offer specialist language courses, such as Business German, Business Spanish and Spanish for Healthcare. We caught up with Medicine student Ella, who received the Alex Richardson Award in 2023. The Alex Richardson Award supports St Andrews students undertaking activities in the Spanish-speaking world, reflecting Alex’s passions for adventure and Spanish culture. Ella chose to study the Spanish for Healthcare course at University of Valladolid:

“Although I don’t regret choosing to study Medicine at university, I often wonder what it would have been like to study Spanish, a subject I always loved in school and something I strongly considered when picking my degree. So, when I saw that the University of Valladolid ran a ‘Spanish for Healthcare’ course, I couldn’t believe how perfect it was for me. Improve my Spanish, build on my medical knowledge and spend a month in 30-degree sunshine – I couldn’t see any downsides.

Having said that, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous going into it. A group of eight of us went from St Andrews, most of whom had done at least 2 years of university-level Spanish, and some had been on years abroad. I, on the other hand, hadn’t studied Spanish since school. I felt like a bit of a STEM imposter at the start, but there was no need; the language soon flooded back to me when I was there and, though it was a challenge, I definitely didn’t feel completely out of my depth.

During the month I spent there, I had 4 hours of classes each day: 2 hours of general grammar, and 2 hours of healthcare-specific Spanish. The grammar classes served as a great refresher for me and also encouraged some much-needed speaking practice. The classes were very interactive and laid-back, with the teacher encouraging us to speak a lot in Spanish (which the small class sizes allowed) and teaching us lots of useful colloquialisms. In the healthcare classes, we were taught specific health-related terminology and how to communicate with patients and other health professionals in Spanish. As well as classroom activities, we had a couple of practical days which we spent in the medical school and hospital – this was definitely a highlight. In the medical school, we learned new skills such as cannulation and bandaging and were immersed into healthcare scenarios with a simulated patient, used for training purposes to imitate real-life healthcare situations. We combined our medical knowledge and communication skills, interacting with our team and the ‘patient’ in Spanish in order to problem-solve and create a treatment plan. In addition to these simulated patients, we also witnessed real-life healthcare scenarios as we were shown around the hospital. It was really interesting listening to the staff communicate with each other and the patients, which put my Spanish listening skills to the test, and gave me an insight into the working environment of a doctor in Spain.

The morning break between classes meant it was time for a café con leche and tortilla española in the university café – this soon became a daily ritual I looked forward to and was also a great time to get to know the other students who had come from all over the world. It was such a treat to have the afternoons off, which (as well as a having a siesta, of course) were often spent exploring the city, relaxing by a pool, or taking part in the activities arranged by the university. These ranged from tapas tasting to scavenger hunts and guided tours of museums – so there was definitely something for everyone.

I knew nothing about Valladolid before going so didn’t know what to expect, but soon found that the city had a lot to offer; it is decently sized with a lot going on, yet still mostly walkable. There are green spaces and museums, as well as lots of shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. As is expected in Spain, the city comes alive at night, with tapas bars bustling with people until the early hours in the Plaza Mayor. One of the highlights of my trip was joining in salsa dancing with some locals one evening, whilst other evenings were spent dancing in Juanita’s, one of the nightclubs.

At the weekends, the university organised trips to nearby towns and cities; we had guided tours of Salamanca and Segovia, two beautiful and culturally-rich historic cities. I was amazed by the architecture there, with impressive cathedrals in Salamanca, and the castle in Segovia (which supposedly inspired the famous Disney castle!). Valladolid’s central location in Spain meant that much of the country was easily accessible for weekend trips; I only went as far as León, but others visited places like Santander and Madrid. 

In terms of accommodation, I chose to stay in the student accommodation, which was usefully located 5 mins from our classes, making the 9:30am starts much easier. The accommodation is split into flats of 2, sharing a small kitchen, living area and bathroom. I quickly became very close with my flatmate and neighbours; we were soon having dinner together every night, lots of chats and impromptu karaoke sessions. A few people also stayed with host families, which is a great way to immerse yourself in the culture (and is a bonus if your family has a pool!).

I’m so glad I decided to go Valladolid; not only did I improve my Spanish, gain valuable knowledge of the Spanish healthcare system, and explore a new city, but I also made some really close friends. I would encourage anyone to do a summer language course; you will definitely get a lot out of it, regardless of what you study and your prior language ability and confidence.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to express how grateful I am to have received the Alex Richardson Award last year. It is such a wonderful way to honour Alex and his passion for Hispanic cultures and the support of the award has allowed me to broaden my understanding of Spanish culture, which is an experience I will cherish.”

Although the Alex Richardson Award has now closed for applications for 2024, summer opportunities applicants can receive UK Government Turing funding to assist with participation costs. Extra funding may be available for students from disadvantaged backgrounds or who meet the UK government’s special educational needs or disabilities criteria for additional support. Please contact the Global Office for further information. The deadline for summer opportunities applications is 15 May.

The Alex Richardson Award was set up in memory of Alex Richardson, who was in his Junior Honours year at the University of St Andrews when he tragically died in 2009. His family and friends funded the award as a living memorial of his spirit of adventure and his passion for Spanish-speaking cultures. Since 2010, it has supported St Andrews students with an interest in the Spanish-speaking world to carry a wide range of activities, including volunteering in Costa Rica and Peru; gender empowerment projects in Venezuela; documentary film making in Mexico; human-rights internships in Peru; cycling the pan-American highway, geology research in Spain and an ethnographic study of the world’s most crowded island – Santa Cruz del Islote – off the coast of Columbia. Please see the School of Modern Languages if you would like further information about applying for the Alex Richardson Award, or Development if you would like further information about supporting St Andrews students.

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