In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

December 21, 2022

Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences: On learning to speak a second language, navigating everyday challenges

By In the Loop
Shanthi Siva and Miguel Valdez Soto.

In this episode of Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences, you will hear from Shanthi Siva, a compliance analyst, and Miguel Valdez Soto, a community engagement coordinator, as they discuss the challenges of learning a second language and navigating cultural biases.

Mayo Clinic is a unique place: the culture, the values, the people. "Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences" explores the experiences of Mayo Clinic staff as they navigate life personally and professionally. Sharing these experiences increases understanding of others and ultimately contributes to finding connections, belonging and inclusion at work.     

 In this episode, you will hear from Shanthi Siva, a compliance analyst in Policy, and Miguel Valdez Soto, a community engagement coordinator in the Office of Community Engagement in Research, as they discuss learning English as a second language. Siva shares her perspective on being bilingual and having a lifelong love of language. Soto shares his story of learning English as a young adult and navigating cultural biases around his accent.

Listen as they discuss the challenges of learning a new language and navigating cultural biases. 

Read the transcript

Narrator: In this episode of Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences, you will hear from Shanthi, a compliance analyst, and Miguel, a community engagement coordinator, as they discuss learning English as their second language.

Siva: My native language is Tamil. It is spoken widely in the southern part of India. We grew up with two languages. It's very common for Indians to know multiple languages growing up. English has always been my second language —from kindergarten all the way through college. I've always been exposed to English. How about you, Miguel?

Soto: I'm originally from Monterrey, Mexico. The northern part is a border town with Texas, so we have a big influence from our neighbors. But I didn't learn English until I was 18. I struggled a lot with English. I'm dyslexic, so it's kind of hard to learn a second language. I went as an exchange student to South Carolina for my senior year.

Siva: Wow, that's really impressive.

Soto: It's a nice experience, but I wish I had learned in the classroom like my brother and sister when they were younger. But once you're immersed in a country, in a situation or environment where you just have to learn or speak, I think it's easy.

Siva: I come from a family of teachers. My grandparents on both sides were teachers, and my mom was a headmistress. She was very much a language person. She had a master's in our native language, but her basic graduate degree was in English. She was the one who inculcated a love of language in me.

Soto: I grew up with asthma. I was getting sick constantly. My sister and brother were able to learn English just by going to classes. But I was always missing classes. I struggled, Then I went to a school where they offered French and English. I was more going toward the French. It was easier since the structure is the same as a Latin language, similar to Spanish. You know how it is when you're trying to learn something, and you block yourself like, "I don't like it. I don't like it." That made it more difficult to learn English. Every summer, I had to do summer school. Has there been a time when being bilingual has been helpful for you?

Siva: Yes, of course, in multiple situations. When people are struggling to communicate, they almost have all the words in their throats. But they just have a hard time expressing themselves and putting together words. I'll quickly jump in and ask them in our native language, "What are you struggling with? Can I help you with something?" This happens a lot when I travel, especially internationally. When you get off the plane, they give you immigration forms. People sit there with their pens and forms. They're looking for someone to help them. I think it's a privilege to help people in those situations.

In my professional life, it always surprises people to look at my ridiculously long last name (Shanthi Siva Shanmuga Sundaram) and go, "What? You're an editor?" It's always fun to see their expressions and faces. It has never failed to amuse me.

But when I'm editing the documents, I can process things a lot quicker than people who know just a single language, I know exactly what they're thinking. I know what they're trying to say in a procedure or a policy. I ask my customer, "Is this what you intended to write?" They say, "Exactly." It's very rewarding to help my customers and shape their documents the way they want them to be done. How about you, Miguel?

Soto: On a personal level, it's been helpful because you're able to travel more confidently when you speak English. You can get information around the world. In Mexico, where tourism is big, we had a lot of exposure to bilingual materials. It's helpful now that I can speak it.

Professionally, it has helped me be more empathetic with other people when I see them struggle. You take the time to really understand because sometimes when you're learning a language, you say yes to everything. "Do you understand?" "Oh, yes."

Siva: All I want to say is, yes. Have you ever felt or been made to feel self-conscious about language? Have you been intimidated at all?

Soto: Unfortunately, yes. When I lived in Minneapolis and was looking for an apartment, I kept calling a place where I knew there were vacant apartments. I would call, and I know that they figured it out by my accent. They would say there were no apartments available. And then I would ask my girlfriend, "Can you call and ask for the apartment?" And they would say, "Yeah, we can show it to you at 3 p.m." Unfortunately, those kinds of things still exist.

Siva: I think as human beings we all have biases — something that is innate within us. That's how we are created. It's quite an uphill battle to overcome that kind of bias. One day, my son was sick, and his teacher called and left a message on my phone. I went to pick him up. The teacher was making hand motions. She was depending more on her expressions than words and was trying to explain that he had a cold, and I needed to take him home. I said, "Sure. That's why I'm here. I'm here to pick him up." And she was like, "Oh, OK. Yeah, you can take him." That is something I'll never forget.

I used to live in an apartment before we bought a home. My kids and I were checking our mail. We were about to go back to our apartment. Someone from the property management office came down and said, "What are these people doing here?" She just assumed that we didn't speak or understand English just by looking at us. I simply turned around and walked away. I don't mistake people for that. I always give them grace, and I give them the benefit of the doubt. I try to educate them that even though we look different, we can understand English completely and perfectly.

My first job at Mayo was as an editorial assistant with Scientific Publications, which has been around for more than 120 years. I'm one of the non-native speakers they hired. They edit manuscripts and books for all of our researchers and physicians. To be in that place was the ultimate recognition that came to me in my professional life. People back home — when I tell them that I work at Mayo Clinic and with scientific publications — it always elicits a huge surprise from everyone. They didn't just see me from the outside. They hired me for who I am and what I can do.

Soto: Great. I think everybody has something to share with the community where they live. They all have skills and experience that they can share with others and enrich that community. I was fortunate to be recognized here in Rochester with a Medal of Honor from the city of Rochester and the mayor a few years back. It was for community-wide services that I have done over the years with a few non-profit organizations in the Latino community in Rochester. It was a surprise. I never thought somebody was watching the work that I do. It was a really amazing feeling. They told me that I was going to a meeting. Then, it was the mayor and the city authorities and a big group. My English that day was kind of hard to get out because it was a big surprise. Rochester has been a good town to me. I love this city.

Siva: Our time in Rochester was great. I was part of the Southeast Minnesota poetry group. I was the last person people were expecting to see. I published 16 poems in the Post-Bulletin. I've also been featured on Northern Community Radio. I've read my poems on one of their programs called "Poetry Madison Minnesota." Rochester Public Library featured me in one of their series called "Telling Your Own Story" in 2015. I was privileged to do a session with them on writing in English when you're not a native speaker. Rochester is a great place.

Soto: All the languages, the cultures that are here in such a small town. I think the town embraces everybody. My wife started a Spanish Immersion preschool, and we've been fortunate to have a waiting list since Day 1.

Siva: Rochester is truly a global village. I edit the documents and research, and people are skeptical about "How do you know medical terminology or research terms?" When I was young, my mom wanted me to go to medical school. I just did not have the stomach for it. I can't stand blood. But I loved words. I was a voracious reader from a very young age, and I had this love for words. I did my master's in English language and literature. People always ask me "What is this other degree after your master's?" That's a degree where I did about 18 months of research on American expatriate literature. Coming back to medical literature, I was just fascinated with medical terminologies.  I'd look up the Latin roots. I love to coach my kids for their spelling bee. One of the longest words we learned was "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis."

Soto: Wow.

Siva: It's very fascinating. I get a kick out of learning long and complex words. It's never too late to learn another language. It just keeps you sharp.  It creates a whole new world for you.

Soto: There are so many words in other languages that can express a feeling or a moment that sometimes you don't find in English. Sometimes it's hard when you're trying to share that. I learned one in Spanish. It's called, "convivir," meaning "living within." I learned this from a researcher who went with seasonal farm workers. They couldn't believe that he was "convivir" with them, meaning that he went and picked fruit, had lunch with them, and stayed in the same dorms for two months. There's probably a word in English that you can try to use. Other friends who speak other languages say, "We're just having this type of moment" and they say the word, but they cannot find a word in English to express that. 

Siva: Having an expansive vocabulary — that's always helpful to bring to your professional work.

Soto: Also having the experience with my wife at the Spanish preschool, you see other families who bring their kids. There is no Spanish background at home and they're so impressed that their kid learned the language just like that. I would encourage anybody to try to learn another language.

Narrator: Reflect on this conversation and encourage yourself to try learning a new language – you never know how it may come in useful later in life or what you will learn along the way.


Tags: Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences, Miguel Valdez Soto, Shanthi Siva

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