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

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