Published in Non-Clinical

5 Ways to Improve Your Spanish Communication Skills

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9 min read
Improving your Spanish-speaking skills can lead to more comfortable patients, better rapport, and more fluid appointments in your new language!
5 Ways to Improve Your Spanish Communication Skills
Regardless of where we attended optometry school, we’re likely to encounter native Spanish speaking patients throughout our education and beyond. In this article we’ll explore numerous ways we can brush up on our Spanish-speaking skills, optimize our exam flow, and make our conversations a bit more natural, but this is by no means comprehensive. I will attempt to provide a greater understanding of basic principles and concepts and supplement an initial understanding of the Spanish language that can be applied to a broad range of situations.

1. Get the vowels right

I once had a native Spanish speaking patient tell me a single tip that stuck with me. “In Spanish, pronounce all of the vowels (A, E, I, O, U) as: “ah,” “eh,” “ee,” “oh,” “oou,” instead of “ay,” “Ee,” “eye,” “oh,” “you,” like in English.” This tip has enabled me to clearly convey my words and thoughts when speaking in Spanish.
Sounding like you speak Spanish, even if you don’t know 100% of the vocabulary, will make it more convincing that you’re familiar and comfortable with the language. Additionally, native speakers will have an easier time understanding you and recognizing the words you say if the vowels are pronounced correctly. Remember, native Spanish speakers are also native Spanish listeners.

2. Asking questions in the past: case history

When we’re speaking with our patients, we’re going to be asking questions pertaining to their condition today but also questions about their past – yesterday, last week, last year. “Are you currently using any eye drops?” or “Have you had surgery on your eyes?” “Have you ever used glasses?”

Your Spanish-speaking patients may be incredibly nervous or scared. Keep up with our tips to help keep their appointment comfortable.

The “past participle” conjugation is a simple way of using the past tense because once you learn the way to set up the phrase, you really just need to conjugate one word to form complete sentences. It’s a form used more commonly in Spain, but you’ll be understood by Spanish speakers around the globe.
For me, gaining a better understanding of the past participle has helped tremendously in obtaining a thorough case history and also following up with patients if they have seen other specialists for their eyes.


Step 1 : Conjugate the verb “Haber” meaning “to have” (to have done something in the past, not to possess). For the sake of completeness, here’s the whole conjugation breakdown in present tense. Since we should be speaking formally to our patients, you can safely assume you’ll be using “Ha” (pronounced “Ah”) for this step.
Step 2 : Conjugate whatever verb you’d like to use in the past participle tense by changing the ending to “ido” for verbs ending in er/ir and “ado” for verbs ending in ar.

3. Learn to use “Tener que”

Understanding when and how to use the phrase “tener que” has also helped in optimizing my exam flow. This phrase must be tailored to your specific situation, but means I/you/he/she/we/they “have to” perform some specific type of action. The speaker places the phrase “tener que” before any infinitive verb to help create the sentence or phrase.
  • I have to use eye drops to dilate your pupils and check the health of the eye.”
  • You have to guess when reading the smaller letters.”
  • We have to wait 20 minutes for the eyes drops to work.”
Properly conjugating this phrase provides clear and concise information to your patient. Once you learn a few commonly used infinitive verbs to use during the eye exam, combining them with “tener que” helps you sound more like a native speaker and quickly expands the number of sentences you can say.

4. Apps, apps and more apps!

There is certainly no shortage of language learning apps today. Based on your current competency of the Spanish language, you’re bound to find an app that works best for you.


Most people tend to gravitate towards Duolingo, a very popular, free app with over 200 million daily users and 68 language courses. With short, bite-size, 10 minute lessons, Duolingo is perfect for both beginners and advanced speakers.


Another new and useful tool is the OpTranslate app. This recent app breaks down each part of the eye exam, providing thorough translations for common phrases, questions, and answers that are likely to be encountered during the eye exam. The OpTranslate app also has a podcast component that includes in-depth discussions on how to apply the Spanish language to each part of your exam!


One of my top favorite apps for learning Spanish is Whatsapp, another free app that enables communication with anyone, domestically and internationally. While it’s certainly not a self-study app per se, it enables you to converse with other native speakers (if you have friends who live in other countries). When it comes to learning a new language, immersive experiences and frequently using the language will surpass the progress of self-study sessions.
I typically use this app in conjunction with the Spanishdict app (a simple translator/dictionary that I can use if I stumble on a word or definition), to have organic, authentic conversations with native Spanish-speaking friends. Having a real Spanish conversation (written or spoken) at various times of the day/week/year can help to increase competency of the language much faster than reading about how things could potentially be said at various times.

Are you ready to bring an A+, Spanish-speaking OD to your practice to help you and your patients? Check out our templates for bringing on a new optometrist!

Optometry students and new grad ODs today are almost guaranteed to encounter varying degrees of Spanish speaking patients, regardless of geographical location. This is especially true for those doing outreach trips to Spanish-speaking countries. These optometry brigades provide a great opportunity to befriend anyone and everyone you meet, staying in touch via email, Skype or Whatsapp.
Between other doctors, interpreters, students, and patients, you’ll likely encounter many native Spanish-speakers who are wanting to learn and practice their English skills (especially the young adults). In these settings, it never hurts to force yourself to be more outgoing than you may be otherwise; the more situations you can practice, the faster your Spanish will improve.

5. A little respect goes a long way

Even if you’re not perfectly fluent in Spanish, incorporating several brief phrases can go a long way in making the patient feel welcome and cared for. It’s important to remember to adopt the formal “Usted” form when speaking to most patients. Speaking in the informal “Tu” form is perfectly acceptable to children and young adults. Patients will not call you out on this subtle difference, but they will certainly notice.
One example of sprinkling a little respect into your patient encounter is by saying “Gracias por” before your infinitive verbs. This simple line becomes a phrase all in its own. Using the words “Pase” and “Espero que” are also great ways to add friendly and respectful phrases into your patient interactions. Adding little lines like this within your patient encounters will show your compassion as a doctor and make them feel welcome in your office.
Every optometrist is different when it comes to their patient demographics and desire to learn a foreign language. Some doctors prefer to learn the bare minimum to get by with their patients that do not speak their language, while others are bilingual or aspire to be fluent in the future.
Rarely will patients respond to your basic questions with single-word, slowly spoken, easily understood answers. During the times when your Spanish-speaking patients reply to your simple question with a paragraph response, it is useful to have a broader vocabulary base to help decipher what they’ve just told you.
TIP: Never be afraid to ask someone to repeat something. “Can you repeat that please?” It’s better to attempt to answer the question they actually asked.
With a few small additions to your Spanish vocabulary you will be surprised by how quickly your Spanish eye exams begin to flow more smoothly. Despite the plethora of ways we can use technology to interpret for us, having a basic understanding of the language will save you time and optimize your exam flow.
It’s important for us to establish a good rapport with our patients, regardless of their demographics. Learning to enhance your Spanish communication skills, and ascend beyond the bare minimum vocabulary will help you thrive among your Spanish-speaking patient population.
Kevin Cornwell, OD
About Kevin Cornwell, OD

Dr. Kevin Cornwell graduated from The New England College of Optometry in 2015. He went on to complete a residency in ocular and systemic disease with Indian Health Services in Zuni, New Mexico. He now works with MACT Health Board, Inc in Northern California, a nonprofit organization that provides healthcare for Native Americans. He is enthusiastic about bringing eye care to populations in need, both domestically and abroad. He has been involved with several humanitarian outreach projects, in various parts of California, New Mexico, Nicaragua and Mexico. He is passionate about managing the ocular manifestations of systemic disease, and monitoring ocular pathology through retinal imaging with spectral domain optical coherence tomography. He’s also an avid health crusader and enjoys educating and encouraging patients to better manage metabolic disease. Dr. Cornwell enjoys hiking in the Sierras and recording music as a guitarist for Cornwell Studios' youtube channel.

Kevin Cornwell, OD
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