Inspired by Dr. Stephen Pinker’s interview on Thinking Allowed and Dr. Wade Davis’s TedTalk on Endangered Cultures, I wanted to explore the themes of language, consciousness, and identity in my own life. The result is the following piece I submitted to grad school.
A gay redheaded Jew from New York greeted the class on our first official day of college-level Spanish. Affectionately known as Donaldo by his students, Señor Wood looked like a GQ model, his yamaka matching impeccably to his perfectly pressed shirt. He sang opera, played the cello, the violin, the clarinet, the piano, the harp, and spoke five languages. As soon as class settled, he began his introduction. Out from his mouth flowed the most beautiful Spanish I’d ever heard. And I couldn’t understand a word of it. Once he finished, he cheerfully asked if anyone understood. A few students halfway raised their hands; the rest of us just stared back in paralysis. He turned to the class roster. I shrank in my chair as he reached my name. “Amelia Torres?” he chimed in flawless pronunciation – the same way I was accustomed to hearing only come from my parents. “Are you a native speaker?” he brightened. Lowering my gaze, I shook my head. Never had the reality of not being a native Spanish speaker hit me harder than in that moment.
Growing up with a Mexican father and a mother from Texas, I always knew I was supposed to speak Spanish fluently but never could figure out why I couldn’t. We moved from San Antonio to middle Georgia in the fourth grade, away from piñatas and breakfast tacos to the planet where macaroni and cheese is considered a vegetable. “Of course, I speak Spanish. I’m Mexican!” I would tell my friends and managed to fake it all throughout my schooling, but only the Peruvian substitute in high school saw through my façade. I couldn’t speak it even if my life depended on it. A language is like a key to another door of opportunity; my father etched this phrase into my brain. He knew the importance of being bilingual, yet, he did not teach me Spanish, only spoke to me in simple phrases and accepted my English in return. How can I be Mexican if I can’t speak Spanish? Commence identity crisis.
So, when the flyer to study abroad in Costa Rica came across my desk later that semester, I knew the path to mending my identity would continue there. Equipped with my new fundamentals and my emergency kit of phrases from my father, I hiked my way through the language and into the mountains of Central America. I picked up several colloquialisms during my time there, like mejengear, which means to play a game of soccer or tuanis slang for “cool!” I remember being so proud to share these words with my father, but he only criticized them. “That’s incorrect,” he would say. “Their Spanish isn’t correct Spanish.” Which led to me to think, how can this entire group of people be wrong? What is standard Spanish? And who gets to define what proper language is and what isn’t?
According to a discussion on Language and Consciousness with Dr. Steven Pinker (1994), he explains that language isn’t a static thing. Every generation – and culture, for that matter – will add its own nuances. Languages evolve much like plants and animals do. Pinker even mentions that Darwin credited observing the way languages change as a major influence in his research of species evolution: “You may have, say, a group of canine ancestors that got separated by a mountain range or by a river. [One] group got bigger; [one] group got smaller. Enough time passes, and [they become] different species, like a wolf and a fox.” The Spanish in the rural cloud forest of Costa Rica was just different enough from the metropolis of Mexico City for my dad not to fully accept the Spanish I was learning as español de verdad. And my father wasn’t the only one who chided these differences.
“Guajolote? No, Amelia. The word for ‘turkey’ is pavo,” my Argentinean roommate corrected me. Two years after my Costa Rica chapter, I found myself in Brazil in the middle of preparing an American Thanksgiving dinner, when I listed off this particular menu item. I knew the word pavo, but I also knew that guajolote definitely meant “turkey” thanks to my father’s teaching. Before I could defend my vocabulary, my Mexican colleague saved me and explained to the group that guajolote actually comes from Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Since the Aztecs inhabited what is now modern-day Mexico, Mexican Spanish speakers of today use these two words interchangeably. I realized in this exchange my unique position in this language. Because I learned through study and immersion versus growing up a native speaker, my Spanish began taking on its own shape influenced by the vernacular idiosyncrasies of my Ibero-American counterparts, who hailed from Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Chile, Venezuela, and Peru. Though, my fellowmen would frequently correct me on what they deemed to be my improper use of certain words, I found more often than not that they couldn’t understand each other.
One evening my friends and I went out to a local bar. My Colombian friend tried to strike up a conversation with our new Spaniard co-worker. Quickly, they both got frustrated realizing they couldn’t understand what the other person was saying. They turned to me and asked, “Can you understand what the other is saying?” Without hesitation I replied, “Yes, because I understand español colombiano and español de España.” My Spanish training had cast a wide net over the language and allowed me to tap into its universal root and understand them, much like decoders deciphering a faulty communication signal. Yet, still baffled, I thought how could two speakers of the same language not be able to communicate? A wolf may be a wolf, and a fox may be a fox, but they are still canines through and through. Right?
Dr. Pinker (1994) discusses this phenomenon, saying that within the same language, there are different dialects with their own sets of rules, grammar, and unique enunciations: “Each speaker becomes a listener […], and what tends to happen is [when] we listen to some other vernacular, we pick up on where they slur, and [where] we don’t, [and] we forget about where we slur and [where] they don’t. [Then] we think that they speak in a sloppy way.” Pinker cites the dialectal differences in English between the rural American South and the urban Northeast as examples, which made me remember my first trip to Boston. Like a typical tourist, I tried to order a pizza, but all I heard come from the guy behind the counter was one long harried ribbon of sound. I stared back. Did he just speak in English? I thought bewildered. Maybe I could relate to my Colombian and Spaniard friends after all.
My Spanish-speaking comrades and I would often discuss words that have different meanings depending on their country of origin. For example, the word chucho is considered a puppy in Guatemala. In Colombia, it’s a nickname for Jesús. In Argentina, it means chilly. If you’re in a chucho in Chile, then you’re probably in jail, and in Mexico, if people consider you clever, they may call you a chucho. The phrase “lost in translation” could very well originate from here.
But, what about my identity? I was also learning Portuguese in parallel with Spanish, which tremendously aided my communication with my international colleagues. Almost all spoke English, and at work, we often found ourselves in conversation triangles, which consisted of a Brazilian, a Latin American, and myself switching back and forth between each other’s native tongues without missing a beat. We coined this trilingual discourse Portuñonglish, the language grab bag of Português, Español, and English. During these exchanges, I was acutely aware of the way my mind translated the three languages, like DNA helixes raveling and unraveling and fusing back together into new strings of thought.
I read many articles on polyglots, and how with every language they attain, they feel as if a new old ancient part of themselves is being unlocked. A language is like a key to another door of opportunity. My father’s voice rang through my head again. I reveled in the new sensation of turning on and off languages like light switches, but I also was aware of something else: the further away I got from English, the shakier it became for me to go back to it. Words actually escaped me, scuttling away into the recesses of my mind as if I abandoned them. According to a National Geographic article entitled Vanishing Voices, certain cultures believe their mother tongue to be a seed of their identity. When a person learns a new language and stops practicing their root, their identity becomes lost (Rymer, 2012).
Was that what was happening to me? Was I focusing so much on gaining sense of my identity through another language that I had forgotten to embrace my mother tongue altogether? I had never even stopped to consider English as my mother tongue! But what about all the Spanish words I knew from infancy? Don’t those count? How could I be losing my identity when I didn’t even know who I was to begin with? Or was my fate to be like the polyglots and just keep expanding and expanding like the Big Bang? What happens when I can’t expand anymore? Would I just pop into nothing?
Of course I wouldn’t just pop into nothing. At the very least, I would stretch out like a rubber band as far as I could go before I snapped back.
My amorphous español provided no restitution. No matter how much I advanced, the Latin Americans would steamroll me if they couldn’t understand or if I took too long to respond. Yet, my Portuguese almost kept me from getting on a plane back the United States, because the customs agent didn’t believe that I wasn’t Brazilian. The scene from the movie Selena (Nava, 1997) came to mind, where her father rants about how hard it is to be a Mexican-American: “We have to prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we have to prove to the Americans how American we are. […] Both at the same time. It’s exhausting.” This summed up my exact sentiments while living with my amigos latinos and even to a certain extent, speaking Spanish with my father.
And then, my metaphorical rubber band snapped back. Selena! A Tejana. A female Texan with Mexican roots. She also didn’t speak Spanish growing up. Her father taught it to her through song, and she became Queen of Tejano music. A part of my cellular structure always resonated with the Tejano culture. I danced ballet folklorico as a little girl but stopped when we moved to Georgia, because it didn’t exist in the Southeast. My friends could never relate to my love of spicy food or Latin music. I even believed the Spanish translation of laundromat to be washateria, much to the chagrin of my college classmates who barked with laughter at my answer. I had to Google a picture of a washateria to prove that it was a real thing. Only then did I realize that washateria is a colloquial word commonly used in Texas by Spanglish speakers. Spanglish: a hybrid of Spanish and English used by U.S. Latinos who live in two coexisting worlds (Gonzalez, 2001) – the exact limbo I’d been living in my entire life. Finally, it dawned on me: my quest was never about finding my identity; it was about understanding and appreciating where I came from.
After trudging all across the topography of Spanish, I realized my español could never be like the other dialects, because I am not from those places – and despite my firm adolescent belief – nor am I Mexican. I am a Tejana, a second-generation Hispanic born in the conjugation valley of English and Spanish, where this harmonious sub-species vocalizes in the same way every culture rich its own oral history sings its part in the grand chorus of the human experience. As elegantly described by Dr. Wade Davis in his 2003 TED Talk:
A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.
Language is what gives cultures their voice. Our very cognition and perception of the world are influenced by the tongues we speak (Pinker, 1994), and the larger a language is, the more room it has to be dialectally diverse. May the universal human consciousness be forever insatiable, continuously manifesting into new seeds of identity and bridging across generations. For so long as languages evolve, the doors of opportunity shall be endless.
Davis, W. (2003). Wade Davis: Dreams from Endangered Cultures. Retrieved October 2013, from TED.com: http://www.ted.com/talks/wade_davis_on_endangered_cultures.html
Gonzalez, L. (2001). Viva Spanglish! Retrieved October 2013, from Texas Monthly.com: http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/viva-spanglish
Nava, G. (Director). (1997). Selena [Motion Picture].
Pinker, D. S. (1994). Language and Consciousness. Thinking Allowed. (J. Mishlove, Interviewer) Oakland, CA: Thinking Allowed Productions.
Rymer, R. (2012, July). Vanishing Voices. Retrieved October 2013, from National Geographic Magazine: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/vanishing-languages/rymer-text