At least 3 years of high school Spanish and one year in college aren't going to waste. I've had a string of patients lately that only speak Spanish, or little enough English to be unable to communicate. I'm able to remember enough to impress my ambulance partners and thoroughly confuse my patients. I knew a fair amount of conversational Spanish, and as I need phrases I've tried to learn them. But really, I don't think my high school teacher ever expected me to ask, "Does the pain move anywhere around your body or stay in one place?" K is also taking an introductory Spanish class because he's encountering patients he just can't communicate with and it is hard to help people when you don't know what is wrong with them. We do have access to language line, a telephone translation service, but it really is easier if you can just talk with the patient yourself.
Also inconvenient is the need for trying to ask questions in multiple ways. For English-speaking patients, I'll frequently ask a question, get an answer, move on with some other questions or information and then come back to ask the question with a different phrasing to make sure I'm getting consistent answers. When I come up with only one half-baked translation for a question, I'm unlikely to try it again unless I think of a better way to ask it, so I'm never sure I've gotten quite all the information.
The last patient like this had been working on his car when it fell off the jack and crushed his arm underneath the wheel (not the tire, the metal wheel). Nobody on scene spoke English. Myself and one firefighter spoke some Spanish. I was able to get enough information out of him to give a decent radio patch to the hospital and a reasonable report to the triage nurse. Unfortunately, they didn't have a translator available in triage, so I was trying to ask some of her questions too, "Have you ever smoked?", "Do you drink alcohol every day?", "Who is your primary care physician?" with about as much success as I had in the ambulance. What really made me laugh though - when I returned to registration to try and get his demographic information, there was a fluent Spanish speaker working with him on that and nobody thought to ask her to help us out in the back.