In Between Words
A collection of U.S. Latinos' experiences with English reveals just how much there is to learn with a new language.
Published: Monday, December 10, 2007
We had our own language, neither English nor Spanish, but both in the same sentence, sometimes in the same word.
How I Learned English: 55 Accomplished Latinos Recall Lessons in Language and Life
Edited by Tom Miller, forward by Ray Suarez
National Geographic Society, 268pp., $16.95 paper
For Enrique Martinez Celaya, English was "a wispy buzz that carried prestige and mystery." Like many of the contributors to this collection, Martinez Celaya has a complicated personal relationship with the language. The vignettes, most written in and some translated into English, describe the experience of learning a language while dealing with cultural conventions sometimes baffling to speakers of Spanish, Portuguese, and other Latin American idioms.
For some writers, single words take on luster. Guillermo Cabrera Infante recounts a first enthusiastic response to nutshell. The writers' attitudes toward English range from Celaya's sense that it holds secrets to resentment about the difficulties of controlling their own voices. Marie Arana ("Power") tells of outsmarting the condescending elementary-school placement evaluator by hiding her knowledge of English, in order to get placed into Spanish-speaking classes. For many contributors, the pleasure of learning English did not diminish their affection for their first language, in spite of their English teachers' disapproval. For some, though, learning English created a bitterness toward the language and the way it hobbled their self-expression.
Where some see mystery in English, German Arciniegas ("English Lessons and the Berlitz System") sees a malady. For him, English "most resembles a type of sickness. It's what one might call, grammatically speaking, a disorder of the tongue," and this disorder carries over into daily life. For example, shopping in the U.S. and Spain are fundamentally different activities. In Spain, Arciniegas could expect to get engrossed in a conversation about bullfighting and ..."the ice would come as a kind of afterthought." In America, "you just pick up the merchandise, pay, say "thank you," and everything is taken care of." The foreigness of English extends past the words and grammar to the unwritten rules for using it.
English could also be a ticket to a new life. Lorena Ochoa, in "English Helped my Golf," writes that learning English when she came to San Diego from Mexico, for a world golf tournament, eventually led her to college in the U.S. and "the best years of my life."
The quirky path of acquisition includes a stage that several writers described between their first language, here usually Spanish, and English: "We invented words if we didn't know the translation for what we were trying to say, until we had our own language, neither English nor Spanish, but both in the same sentence, sometimes in the same word," recalls Esmeralda Santiago in "Wordsranintoeachother." Rosario Ferre highlights the incongruity she feels between the languages when she says that "writing in English is like looking at the world through a different pair of binoculars; it imposes a different mind-set."
The essays' titles refer to this intermediate stage as well. "Amerika, America" (Ilan Stavans), "Ay Doan Peek Eenglee or No me pica la ingle (My Groin Doesn't Itch)" (Jose Kozer), and "Wordsranintoeachother" (Santiago) signal struggles with English and the sensation of being perceived as foreign. By scorning standard conventions, they show a hard-won fluency and creative rebellion.