Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Latinos Describe “How I Learned English” in New Essay Collection

I just found this on Hispanic Trending .... great article, and I'm buying the book today ....

It's interesting that this book touches on two things that I'm writing about -- the fact that immigrants DO learn English (despite anti-immigrant rhetoric to the contrary -- and often at the cost of their original language), and also the fact that many bilinguals feel completely different in one language than in another. Which leads me to ask, if bilinguals are different in the two languages, and then one of those languages gets lost ... what happens to that part of the person's identity that was tied to the original language?

By the way, I know all about those embarrassing mistakes you can make when learning a language ... or even when you know a language, thanks to all the wonderful regional differences in Spanish! I found out the hard way that in Venezuela, you can't say "cuchara" when you want a spoon .... let's just say that I definitely don't recommend that you go out to a nice dinner in Venezuela with a big group of people, and ask for two desserts and eight cucharas ..... it was pretty funny when my friend told me later what I had said.

We do need to keep a sense of humor when we're learning ... and remember that the important thing is, we're learning!


Latinos Describe “How I Learned English” in New Essay Collection

August 27, 2007
By Jenny Shank

When I was six years old, I began taking a bus to my assigned public elementary school west of Mile High Stadium, about a thirty-minute ride away from my southeast Denver home. At school I encountered an entirely different world from that of my neighborhood: many of my classmates were the children of immigrants, and while classes were taught in English, the school encouraged expressions of different cultures and the use of Spanish language.

On one wall was a mural of an image taken from the Mexican flag, an eagle with a snake in its beak, perched on a cactus. If you behaved especially well, the teacher might choose you to wear the “Ayudante” jean jacket for the week, and give you some tickets that could be exchanged for marvelous junk at the Cinco de Mayo carnival. I don’t remember a time before I knew the story of La Llorona, which I must have heard the Mexican-American kids telling on the playground. So it was with great interest that I read How I Learned English, a new anthology edited by Tom Miller featuring 55 short essays by Latinos who made the same journey my classmates did, from the Spanish-speaking world into the English-speaking world.

PBS NewsHour regular Ray Suarez writes in his introduction that “learning a language begins a passage to another way of seeing the world and speaking it into existence.” Some of the writers struggled to learn English, while others arrived in the United States as children and soaked the language up, perhaps losing their previous fluency in Spanish in the process, as novelist Francisco Goldman did. (He once listened to a tape recording of himself as a child, and writes, “It was strange to be a college student, listening to your four-year-old self do something that you couldn’t do anymore: speak fluent Spanish.")

Changing a language can change one’s worldview or even one’s personality, as University of Michigan anthropology professor Ruth Behar writes: “They tell me I was a nonstop talker, una cotorrita. But after we arrived in the United States I became shy, silent, sullen. I have no memory of myself as a little girl speaking Spanish in Cuba.” I have observed the personality changes that using different languages can bring first hand--my husband was born in New York to French parents, and learned English as a second language, in part from Sesame Street. When he speaks in French, he is typically more of a social papillon than he is when he speaks in English.

Most of the writers in this collection entered the American educational system before the Chicano rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s brought about changes that welcomed multiculturalism (like that mural on my elementary school’s wall), and so several writers report that a teacher asked their parents to speak in English at home to promote the children’s fluency.

This is what happened to the incisive essayist Richard Rodriguez in the excerpt included from his book Hunger of Memory. “As a socially disadvantaged child,” he writes, “I considered Spanish to be a private language. What I needed to learn in school was that I had the right--and the obligation--to speak the public language of los gringos.” Rodriguez was shy and mumbled in class until the day when three nuns from the school visited his family’s house and suggested they practice English at home. His parents declared the nuns’ suggestion a rule, and Rodriguez’s English flourished, though not without regret for the loss of his family’s private Spanish world. “The spell was broken,” he writes.

Even when immersed in the English language, it’s not easy to learn all of the idioms and rules of English, as Richard Lederer and Josh White Jr. note in their piece, “English Is Cuh-ray-zee.” “If the teacher taught,” they write, “why isn’t it true that a preacher praught?”

“How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same/ When a wise man and a wise guy are very different?”

In several of the essays, the writers remember language mistakes they made that caused great confusion. Alvaro Vargas Llosa writes that he learned English “the hard way--that is, wrenching my guts out with books, tapes, video courses, and that irreplaceable method, the humiliation of real-life trial and error.” He learned Spanish from his Peruvian parents, then picked up French before he began to study English at a boarding school in Britain. While there, he had an English girlfriend, and he recounts this sad and funny incident:

“After not seeing her for a few weeks, I wanted to tell her that I missed her. When I said to her, ‘I regret you,’ anglicizing the French word for missing someone, she looked at me in horror and spat out something like: ‘You are not a gentleman.’ We never saw each other again.”

Although many of the writers had fun learning English through television, movies, and music (as did Gigi Anders, who watched Captain Kangaroo and The Lucy Show, and congressman José Serrano, who listened to Frank Sinatra records), a common theme is how hard one must work to master and maintain a language. Miami Herald journalist Enrique Fernández taught college Spanish at one point, and writes, “From that experience I found out that a foreign language can be learned and that some people can learn it, while others can’t no matter how hard they try.”

Many writers note that English is a language that opens the world to them, and the image of the stubborn immigrant who doesn’t want to learn English is belied by the stories in this book. Ray Suarez writes about Samuel Huffington’s Foreign Policy essay, “Jose, Can You See?” in which “he peers into the future and sees native-born English speakers as an embattled minority.” Suarez observes that Huffington “looks at Latino American and totally misses the night school classes” and “the endless hours of ads for English-language home study kits.”

It would be interesting if How I Learned English were to be updated twenty years from now with stories from younger bilinguals, because while many writers in this collection were encouraged to cast off their old language, today there is more interest in keeping multiple languages alive. What will the English language become as more Spanish speakers learn it and more Latinos join the U.S. population?

Judging from the determination of the essayists in How I Learned English, English will continue to be the potent global language that it is today, though Spanglish might become an important secondary tongue as American English continues to fold in the words of the native languages of its population. I, for one, don’t see anything ominous in this potential development. That’s what living languages do: they change.

How I Learned English: 55 Accomplished Latinos Recall Lessons in Language and Life
Ed. Tom Miller
National Geographic Books
266 pages, $16.95

Source: New West Books and Writers

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Does he spit in the bath? (and more from a medical Spanish phrase book ...)

Phrase books are a funny thing. They have to anticipate situations and then provide just the right sentence to address that situation.

Sometimes I'm just surprised at the situations that the authors of the book have anticipated.

I posted a while back about the book, "Hindi Made Easy," that my family had somehow acquired when we lived in New Delhi when I was a child. The book was one that had been given to British soldiers during the original occupation of India ... and included phrases that soon became famous in our household: "Let us set fire to the village", and "That man is a horse thief."

Shocking as it was, that book offered a glimpse into another era, and the attitudes of that time.

I wasn't prepared to be quite so surprised when I bought a Spanish medical phrase book for my friend, who is entering a new phase of her life and starting medical school next week. She wanted to be able to connect with her future patients, since she will be living, studying and working in a community where Spanish is prevalent.

But a few sentences in the book did jump out at me, and made me wonder what kinds of situations the authors were anticipating ...

Ellos rezan mucho. - They pray a lot.

Me gusta ver el cielo. - I like to see the sky.

No puede oler la medicina. - He can't smell the medicine.

El no patea la puerta. - He doesn't kick the door.

El escupe en el baño. - He spits in the bath.

Surprisingly (to me), my friend didn't think some of these were so unusual. "I could see that coming up in a psych evaluation," she noted.

And she's right - these aren't phrases that I would normally use, but perhaps they will come in handy for her. And if they do, she will be prepared ....

Monday, August 27, 2007

Are you involved in a Heritage Language Program?

Just got this from the Heritage Language Listserve .... if you are involved in a K-12 and/or community-based heritage language program, the Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages would like to make sure you are in their database ... (by the way, "LCTL" stands for "Less Commonly Taught Languages").

The Alliance for the Advancement of Heritage Languages (the Alliance)
consists of individuals and organizations dedicated to the preservation
of heritage languages for cultural, social, educational, economic and
national security purposes. The Alliance is committed to working
together to enable heritage language speakers to attain high proficiency in
their heritage languages while also developing English literacy.

The Alliance is hosted by the Center for Applied Linguistics in
Washington DC, and is collecting profiles of heritage language programs in
K-12 and community-based settings. They are particularly hoping to enhance
the number of LCTLs represented in that database, so as to have a more
complete network in which ideas regarding heritage language programs
are exchanged and strengthened. Please learn more about the work of the
Heritage Alliance ( and enter a program profile at
the following link:
You can contact us regarding questions or suggestions related to
heritage education or the work of the Alliance through email: Thank you very much for your cooperation.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Reaction to "Who is a Latino"

Well, that's why they call them opinion pieces ....

In addition to a number of positive responses, I also received one very negative reaction to my "Who is a Latino" piece, by someone who felt I oversimplified the issue, disrespected the reality of the Latino experience, and basically "Disney-fied" being Latino.

I can see the author's point, and obviously, generalizations about any culture can never be fully true. But I do enjoy, and observe, and write about my personal experiences in those cultures and what they mean to me.

Like many people who speak more than one language, I find I have a different personality and a different experience depending on the language or culture in which I’m operating – and part of this essay comes from these observations. My experience in Spanish is different from my experience in English – and yes, I enjoy what I call the Latinidad of that – and my experience in Italian is also quite different. In fact, I’m researching and writing on this subject to try to delve more into these issues.

One of my goals, through my writing and my work, is to counteract the negativity against other languages and cultures in this country (which has always existed, and is escalating alarmingly now). I try to do that by putting out positive messages that celebrate the contributions of all languages and cultures here.

I am the grandchild of immigrants who had all of their language and culture boiled away by the melting pot … the language disappeared, and only a few cultural traditions remained (in my family, that consisted of a few recipes and not much more).

It saddens me to see the same trend continued today, whether it’s due to xenophobic attitudes or just the overwhelming weight of societal pressure and pop culture. There's a great loss for our country in terms of our linguistic and cross-cultural expertise (very important for our future in the global market), and a huge loss for our society, which is so enriched by our combination of heritages... but there’s also a long-term personal loss as well. Many heritage language learners, including myself, have gone back to try to find the piece of their identity or soul that was lost in that process.

So I will continue to write it as I see it, and as I experience it. It’s my way of honoring the cultures that I came from, the languages that my family lost, and the multicultural and multilingual reality that I would like to see this country achieve.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ich bin ein Latino!

I have a new catchphrase that I am going to start spreading around: "ICH BIN EIN LATINO." If we all said that, then they REALLY couldn't deport us all! (Kind of like JFK showing his solidarity for Berlin, or that story about the King of Denmark making everyone wear a yellow star of David to thwart the Nazis ... which, apparently, is not a true story, but it should be ....)

By the way, my essay on "Who is a Latino" has just been posted up on Hispanic Tips and American Taíno. As I note in that essay – and as my new catchphrase reaffirms – we could all use a little Latinidad.

Who is a Latino?

L.A. Law actress Michele Greene.

Supermodel Christy Turlington.

Wonder Woman Lynda Carter.

Baseball legend Ted Williams.

New Mexico Governor – and presidential candidate – Bill Richardson.

What do these individuals have in common?

Their American-sounding last names – and their Latino cultural heritage.

I call them "Latinos incognitos," because at first glance, they might not easily be recognized as Hispanic. With Anglo fathers and Latina mothers, the institution of marriage automatically hid the Latino heritage of all these individuals – at least on paper.

As a result, they certainly don’t “sound” Latino. They may not even “look” Latino, either. So are they really Latinos?

Because of his name and his part-Anglo heritage, Bill Richardson has been accused of being “not Latino enough.” But at the same time, he is also accused of being “too Latino,” trying to leverage his Hispanic heritage for political gain.

The reality, of course, is that Bill Richardson is Latino, and he is Anglo. The two cultures are not mutually exclusive – although they are often treated as such. When was the last time you saw a box for “multicultural” on any official form? Our society does not easily accept the middle ground between two heritages.

On official forms, as in life, bicultural Latinos are pressured to choose. And inevitably, they will receive criticism for their choices. Kevin Johnson (another Latino incognito), in his memoir, How Did You Get to Be Mexican, recalls being accused in college of “checking the box” as a Latino to get preferential treatment, but not being “Latino enough” to back it up with political activism.

Even Latinos with two Latino parents can have their Latinidad challenged. A dear friend of mine, who proudly describes herself as Puerto Rican, was often made to feel less so by her native Puerto Rican peers in New Jersey, because she wasn’t “born on the island.” Another friend who doesn't "look" Latina recalls that the only way she could convince her Hispanic classmates that she was indeed Latina was to tell them she watched Walter Mercado's horoscopes with her grandmother.

But who is a Latino, anyway?

Is it someone who is born in this country, a descendant of the original Spanish settlers?

Is a Latino someone whose family immigrated from a Spanish-speaking country and created a home here?

Can you be a Latino without a Hispanic name? Without speaking Spanish? Without a direct connection to your heritage?

What makes someone a Latino?

It’s certainly not just the name, despite the U.S. Census’ original method of counting Latinos by using the category “Hispanic surname.” Where does that leave Governor Bill Richardson or Michele Greene (who, as a bilingual singer/songwriter, recently released her second CD, Luna Roja, in both English and Spanish)?

Language helps – but you don’t even have to speak Spanish to be a Latino (and a growing number of Latinos don’t). The reverse, however, can be true – you can start to feel Latino just by speaking Spanish. There is something in the sound of the language, the words themselves, that bring Latinidad to those who choose to celebrate its beauty, its richness, and its innate poetry.

Those who learn Spanish in order to bark orders at employees or simply to fulfill a foreign language requirement are not likely to feel it, though. Here, intention is everything.

To me, being a Latino is more than just a language or a last name, or even what country you came from or can trace your roots to. Being a Latino is about a feeling, an attitude, a connection to life and culture and family and music, and a desire to experience it all to its fullest.

And to me, being a Latino means living life with sabor, and taking the time to appreciate and enjoy everything – and everyone – that makes life worth living.

And we can all use a little bit of that Latinidad.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Chispa in LATINA Magazine – Teaching Spanish to Your Children

A few months ago, I was contacted by LATINA Magazine's Lifestyle Editor for an article on encouraging your children to speak Spanish.

Well, the magazine is out, and I'm quoted in it ...

We spoke at length, and it was a shame that the feature she was writing could only be 300 words! The article is concise and well written, but I would like to add a few tips that we had discussed. (And these points are equally valid for Spanish teachers or for anyone who wants to learn or improve their Spanish.)

1. Start as early as you can ... but it's never too late!

Yes, I said in the article (only half-jokingly!) that kids should start learning languages "in utero." But that doesn't mean that if you start when your child is 10 or older, you've lost your opportunity. I am proof of that - I didn't start learning Spanish until high school, and I now speak with near-native fluency. (And I am still learning and improving every day.) Anyone can learn at any age. Of course, it's easier for young children, but don't let that stop you if they - and you! - are older. Being an older learner has its own advantages. So yes, start as early as you can ... but it is never, ever too late!

2. Immerse, immerse, immerse! Create a language-rich environment in your home - and don't forget your community....

Family, friends, games, music, books, culturally authentic television shows and videos ... keep the language alive by using it and making it an enjoyable and "siempre presente" part of your daily lives. Try a game with post-it notes - write the names of household objects and label things around the house (watch out for el gato, though!). And don't forget your community! Of course, it's great to take the kids back to a Spanish-speaking country, if you can ... but if you can't, you can probably still find that same type of language immersion experience right in your own town or close by.

3. Make Spanish fun for yourself and your child.

Tie learning to an interest that your child has, or that you and your kids have in common. Do you like cooking? Bicycling? Reading? Legos? Do it in Spanish! Nancy Marmolejo created a fun game with her young daughter, where they each have a Spanish "persona", and when they're in character, they can only speak Spanish.

Remember, the key to any learning is motivation. If it's fun, they're motivated. If it's done in a way that produces stress, then the brain goes into defensive mode, and cannot absorb new information (it's called the affective filter, and I won't bore you with the details, but it is one thing I remember from all those educational theory classes I took, and the one I most agree with). I think it can be counterproductive to force the issue and make children respond in Spanish when they're not ready to do so. Trust that if you are providing as much exposure as you can, the kids are absorbing the language – and eventually they will produce it on their own (sometimes when you least expect it!).

4. Be proud of sharing your language and heritage with your child, and don't beat yourself up if they're not perfectly bilingual yet!

It's common for bilingual children to respond to their parents in English. Some parents may feel discouraged by this. Rest assured that if they are responding to you, they understand you - and that means the language is programmed into their minds. When they need it and are motivated, they will find a way to use it.

The Chispa Spanish thematic units I'm creating are designed to provide maximum exposure, make learning fun, and highlight Latino culture and heritage at the same time. And just as I tell teachers, "These are not babysitting videos" – i.e., these are not materials to put in the DVD player and let the kids passively watch – the same is true for families. These are active learning tools, with accompanying enrichment activities for parents and children to enjoy together.

So check out Chispa and LATINA magazine this month!

Saturday, August 18, 2007


*Xenoglossophobia - fear of foreign languages

I'm writing a new op-ed about immigration and the real linguistic danger ... i.e., not the fact that immigrant languages are "taking over," but rather that they are being lost .... and I cited the story of my friend, who was chided at her own son's birthday party for speaking to him in Spanish.

I wondered how many other Spanish-speakers (or speakers of any language, really) had received similar treatment, so I put out a call on the Las Comadres New York network.

Here is a sampling of some of the responses I received:


This is a very interesting subject. I have to say that in my case, I've got all kinds of looks when I speak Spanish - some good, but most bad, especially from very ignorant Americans. I am a blond, blue eyed woman who gets very good reception until I open my mouth, and then I get the " you don't look Spanish" or "What language is that?" When I say it is Spanish, people say it sounds different. I think that they cannot believe a very American looking woman can be Spanish and be proud of it.


This is a really touchy point in my psyche. Adversion to Spanish speaker is not a new issue, especially on the West Coast. I am in my early 40's, second generation on my father's side, third generation mother's side, we were discouraged in a socially condoned approach (as were many before me). I am Mexican, Spanish, Native American - both my parents were bilingual. I have written stories (unpublished) about my experiences growing up being told not to speak Spanish.

As a Chicana, I consider it important to contextualize the reality that it is not just recent immigrants and/or immigrants which have suffered from this racism.


Hi, yes a few years ago my and my sorority sisters were doing a community service at a church near Columbia University, and we were speaking spanish in between ourselves. The other people at the community service complained and the organizers there told us that we should not speak spanish anymore. What happened to freedom of speech? eh? it never mentioned it was to be only English speech!


It has happened to a lot of us. In the midst of "friends", when I have spoken in Spanish, non-Spanish speakers have said "that's rude". I just keep on speaking in Spanish. It is my language and if the more languages we know..the better. I'm so glad you are writing this piece.


When I was in high school about 6 years ago, I was speaking in Spanish to one of my friends (the classroom was half Hispanic, a third black, the rest South-East Asian, one person was white), and as soon as the ASSISTANT teacher heard me start up a conversation in Spanish, this one time she told me to stop speaking in Spanish, and didn't stop there. Instead she added: "Welcome to America." I feel that her perception of America does not recognize the diversity that we have, and instead, ignorantly rejects it. Secondly, look at the classroom statistics and think about how many other people were offended besides me. I was extremely offended to the point that look how many years have passed and it still bugs me. I wish I would have said something then!


Thanks for asking about this. I have been chided and have also chided close relatives for speaking Spanish. The situation is the same, usually. My mother used to reprimand me for speaking Spanish when we were in English-speaking company that didn't understand. She found it rude. At first I was offended (but why? Spanish is our language!!), but then I understand that her intention was not to stifle me, but to be inclusive and speak in the language that all of us could participate in. I found myself doing the same to my husband recently when he started a side conversation (already rude) in Spanish with me while we were in company that spoke only English (ruder).

So that's that. I think you have to look at people's intentions when incidents like this happen. We're all doing the best we can and sometimes the question is one of education or misinformation. Perhaps I worry too much about seeming rude to others, but I would rather speak plainly to a family member or close friend than come across as anything less than being clear, comprehensible, and present in the company I might be keeping.


Soy profesora de español para adultros en Manhattan. Con mi esposo tenemos nuestro propio centro de aprendizaje, y hemos tenido la oportunidad de ver casos muy interesantes relñacionados con el idioma.

El que mas nos llama la atención es el target de estudiantes que llamamos "Spanish Heritage students" cuyas edades oscilan entre los 25 y 40 años. Hijos de hispanos de segunda generación, con características físicas claramente hispanas, que entienden el idioma pero que no lo hablan. Ellos han sido criados por padres (la mayoría con escasos recursos academicos y económicos) que han promovido que sus hijos solo hable inglés por el miedo y complejo de ser estigmatizados o discriminados en sus comunidades por hablar español. Ahora esos mismos niños son los que, en busca de su propia identidad, pagan para aprender lo que sus padres debieron haberles enseñado desde chicos. El tema de hablar español en los hogares es tan importante porque el idioma va relacionado intimamente con la personalidad y la identidad del niño.

Entonces sería interesante que en tu nota detallaras el tema de que muchas veces el que no se hable español en las familias no solamente es por parte de los "blancos" sino por ignorancia y desconocimiento de los propios padres.


I have a couple of stories for you...they may be too old...meaning they happened in the 60's but I feel must tell you.

May 1965 Brownsville, Texas (a border town) Matamoros being on the other side of elementary school, Ebony
Heights, on Stanford Street. We were alway told NOT to ever speak Spanish at school. We were told this by the teachers and administrators. One afternoon while I was playing in the school yard during recess...there were a couple of girls playing with a ball beside me. They were speaking spanish and having fun. In a moment that I will never forget, a teacher strides over to them and grabs on girl by the arm and slaps her in the face. Everyone on the school yard was stunned. The teacher dragged both of the girls off yelling at them that they are NOT to speak spanish on the school grounds. I felt so bad because I spoke spanish to my grandparents....and this is where another story begins.

Just after that incident. I was, in my mother's place, going to Delaware to my Aunt's wedding. On that trip, travelling through the south, I noticed people looking at my Aunt Yolanda a bit different. She is morena.

But what happened next is very telling. We went to Washington DC and saw all of the monuments...going over our constitution and re-reading how all men are created equal. After that...we went to the New York Worlds Fair. I was in heaven, so I thought. But at one point I said I had to go to the ladies room. My maternal grandomother...who always dressed so elegantly in Christian Dior took me to the bathroom. I went into the stall, I then heard my grandmother ask in Spanish if I was hungry. I answered her in English that I was. She then asked me again in Spanish what I wanted to eat..I answered her in English that I'd like a hamburger. When I walked out of the very elegant grandmother grabbed me and asked me Why I was speaking to her in english...I said to her that I was speaking in English because we're in the United States. She tightened her grip on me and said to me "Don't you ever feel ashamed of who you are, where your family comes from. You speak two languages. Most people can't even speak one! Never be ashamed of who you are and where you come from! Be proud of your

Whoa....I heard her loud and clear. My ability to speak spanish has helped me in my career. In fact...I feel I should have been paid more for being bi-lingual. I think that is still an issue.

Anyway....I don't know if this is anywhere near what you were really needing...but it's my story.


Cuando vine a Upstate New York, me encontré con un grupo grande de
amigas españolas. Así es que siempre hablabamos en español.
Cuando estabamos afuera de los "dorms", algunos chicos gritaban:
"English- English."

Por supuesto que seguía hablando español (a mucha honra!)


It's interesting how this post meshes with the one below, about the BBC reporters travelling across the US for two weeks, speaking only Spanish.

I can very definitely say that this type of attitude is the reason I grew up speaking only English, even though all four of my grandparents were immigrants. The sad thing is, my grandparents immigrated here 100 years ago. How is it possible that these attitudes are still the same, one century later?

And yes, as one writer notes, many heritage language learners are on a search to recapture a part of their soul that was lost, when these languages disappeared.

In my op-ed, I'm writing about how these language capabilities are so necessary to our future economic and political strength as a nation. What I didn't add, but will in a future article, is how this country's soul is in danger as well.

There's so much more to write on this subject ...