A Worthwhile Labor: 2nd Language Acquisition

2nd language acquisition is a daunting task. Unfortunately, for many development workers it is something that is never mastered. It requires long-term commitment, foresight and personal initiative beyond the classroom. But the opportunities for service that it opens up are innumerable! This is not only true internationally, but even in our own country.

Elise is a trained labor doula and is training to be a midwife. Her skills, complemented by Spanish, make her an invaluable resource to Hispanic mothers who need assistance and advocacy during birth.  

Elise Gerard is a childbirth educator and labor doula trained through our Institute's Maternal Health program. She has been involved in development work for 10 years, primarily in Latin America. After witnessing the conditions mothers in Latin America faced, she felt compelled to study midwifery so she could offer much-needed care to these women. She entered into a two-year Spanish language course at the Institute for G.O.D., and on her own began developing a vocabulary customized to birth work.  

Recently, World Relief contacted our organization requesting our assistance for a Cuban refugee mother-to-be, who had arrived in the U.S. just 3 months ago. Elise jumped at the opportunity to help. It was Adriana’s first pregnancy, and neither she nor her husband Victor spoke any English (names have been changed for privacy). Elise, through use of her adept Spanish skills, accompanied her new clients to their prenatal exams, sharing educational material with them and walking them through the process in Spanish.

Not a few weeks later, Adriana was “overdue,” and scheduled for an induction. When she was admitted into the hospital, Elise was at her side, accompanied by Brittany Girton, another student enrolled in our Maternal Health program. Like Elise, Brittany has been training to be a development worker in Latin America and thus, diligently studying Spanish. Together, Elise and Brittany were prepared to not only support Adriana in labor, but use their Spanish to help explain the medical procedures being recommended (or not recommended) to her.

Brittany Girton teaches a reproductive health seminar in rural El Salvador with no translator. 

The nurse on duty was supposedly fluent in Spanish. She certainly was not. Her best efforts were barely understood by the couple. Elise and Brittany were able to do what the hospital staff could not--translating and offering comfort to the laboring mother and her husband.

The mother's labor continued for 24 hours. Various medications were used to start labor, then attempt to relieve pain. During this time, Victor did not leave the hospital room for 14 straight hours. While he was earnestly offering support, Brittany eventually discovered there was another reason he would not leave his wife’s side: he could not read the hospital signs, nor did he know how to ask for directions. When she discovered the source of his discomfort was language, she offered to accompany him to the cafe. After the urging of his wife, he agreed to a much-needed sandwich, guided by Brittany.

At last, it was determined that a cesarean operation was necessary to safely deliver her baby. While Adriana was overcome with pain, crying, and fearful for the safety of her baby, Elise and Brittany were able to hold her hands and pray with her in her language. Her tears slowed, the panic subsided. She even began laughing at a few jokes that Elise cheerfully interjected.

When the medical personnel witnessed the true help that our ladies were able to offer, Elise was granted a special exception to the ‘one person’ rule that would have only allowed Victor to accompany his wife for the operation. It was precisely Elise’s language skills that impressed the staff, who allowed her to translate and inform the couple of everything that was happening. The operating physician expressed great appreciation for her assistance.

When asked how she thought the birth would have gone if she and Brittany had not been present, Elise shook her head with eyes wide. “I can’t even imagine. Adriana was already so afraid. There were so many times I helped her not only understand what was going on, but encourage and comfort her that it was going to be ok. Compassionate communication is so important during a birth. It’s such a hard thing to face when you don’t speak the language of your caregivers.”

When the healthy, 10-lb. baby boy was delivered into the arms of his parents, they exclaimed over and over with delight, “Él es un puerco!l Él es un puerco!” (He is a pig!) With smiles all around, Elise helped them navigate the first few moments of breastfeeding. Before leaving, she helped Victor and Adriana secure a ‘translation line’ to have an interpreter only a phone-call away during her recovery time.

The assistance that our ladies were able to offer did not come easily. Both were enrolled in the language classes required of everyone at the Institute for G.O.D. But they went beyond that--taking their own initiative to develop fluency. Elise isn’t done learning. She continues to practice on her own by listening to Latin music and watching Hispanic movies. “I don’t just learn language through textbooks.” She laughed, “I need to hear it out loud, to listen to it in the context of a conversation.” Brittany reads Spanish childbirth materials to improve her abilities.    

It was precisely Elise’s language skills that impressed the staff, who allowed her to translate and inform the couple of everything that was happening.

Some acts of service are spontaneous, a quick response to a moment of need. Others are intentional, requiring a daily commitment and diligence that prepares you for a long term goal. Learning another language requires faith. We are so glad these ladies had it, so that they could be prepared when the time came.

This is but one story in their journey of advocating and offering care to mothers in need, but it is definitely one that has stuck with them as they continue in their commitment to meet this need. In our globalized world, language acquisition is a necessity for anyone concerned with the marginalized. The love that can be communicated to another human being in their own tongue is a gift worth the labor.