The wretched, wonderful path to bilingualism is strewn with flashcards
By Anna Daniels
A recent conversation with my neighbor Mari turned to the subject of rats. Big rats had suddenly appeared in her yard and were even bold enough to eat Chavo’s kibble while the chihuahua helplessly looked on. I ventured that the rats had fled the apartment on the corner when it was fumigated. But no, I hadn’t seen rats. “Our cats won’t keep hungry adult rats away, but they do kill the maids. They have left a few on the porch.”
Mari quickly corrected me–“They kill the young.” I laughed. Mari laughed.
We had been conversing in Spanish as we always do. I had used the word “criada”–maid, instead of “cria”–young animals.
Unless you are gifted with a natural ability to acquire languages or were exposed from a very young age to multiple languages, the path to bilingualism can be a wretched, wonderful slog.
The good news is that San Diego is a veritable mother lode for anyone who wants to see it and say it in another language. That’s not just because every flavor of Spanish can be heard here. Spend a few hours in Little Italy or browse a Vietnamese market in City Heights and you will discern just a few of the other linguistic possibilities.
It is frankly troubling that a perhaps sizable swath of Americans looks backward to the imagined glory days of our country– circa 1950s– when it is also imagined that everyone spoke fluent Leave it to Beaver. That was never really true then. It is certainly not true now.
Our polyglot nation today is a sharp poke in the Cyclopean eye of the nativists among us. Here in City Heights over forty percent of the population is foreign born and from over thirty different countries. From my little perch on 45th Street in City Heights I routinely hear Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic and from time to time Creole and Swahili in addition to the ubiquitous Spanish. My new Congolese neighbors melodically greet me with “Bonjour!” or “Bonsoir, comment ça va?” when they pass by.
The path to a yet unattained Spanish fluency has been humbling if nothing else.
I’ve always felt that if I want to learn Spanish and can’t do it here in San Diego, shame on me. Ah, if acquiring a second language were simply an act of sheer desire and auditory osmosis, in which all those random unknown words enter the ear and are then effortlessly articulated in cogent sentence form.
The rat & maid conversation with my neighbor was the culmination of decades of formal study at City College, San Diego State, extension classes at UCSD and small private group lessons; travel to Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba; and close to thirty years of fiestas, conversations and tragedies shared with my Spanish speaking neighbors on 45th Street.
The path to a yet unattained Spanish fluency has been humbling if nothing else. I often pass the adult education center in City Heights where English as a second language is taught. I imagine, with deep empathy, my neighbors from Mexico, Somalia, Burma or Vietnam who are trying to figure out the rules that govern writing and pronouncing their new language.
Perhaps you do not know what it is like to learn English? Let me remind you:
I thought I sought a bough.
I fought. I fought through the night.
It was a tough fight. I lay on my couch.
I coughed all night, surely it was enough… Janet Frame “Living in the Maniototo”
Total immersion It is hard to take the total immersion approach if you aren’t completely surrounded by and incessantly bombarded with every way that a language is conveyed, including gestures and facial expressions.
The most terrifying recommendation of course is to actually speak Spanish any chance you can.
That usually means spending time traveling or studying in some other country and leaving your English speaking significant other at home. A friend who spent a couple of years sailing around Baja Mexico told me about a middle aged man he met who was intent upon learning Spanish.
The guy was memorable because he carried an unabridged Spanish dictionary around with him everywhere he went. He decided to drop anchor for a while in a small Baja fishing village. When my friend last saw him, he had a Mexican wife and children –and a superb command of Spanish.
None of the above are options for many of us.
Total immersion lite My bilingual Spanish speaking friends generally agree that it takes around nine years to really punch through to the other side when total immersion is not an option. I mentally prepared myself for a marathon, not a sprint.
They recommend taking at least one conversational class a week; listening to Spanish language radio stations as often as possible; and carrying on a Spanish conversation inside one’s head. I would also add using flashcards to drill vocabulary; memorizing songs with Spanish lyrics; watching the news from Mexico; and reading books, articles and poetry on topics of interest. The most terrifying recommendation of course is to actually speak Spanish any chance you can.
“The key to the treasure is the treasure” And lo it was true. After around nine years of total immersion lite, I no longer started hyperventilating if a Spanish language speaker called me at work at the old Central Library for information– Cuándo está la luna menguante y la luna llena?- When is the waning and full moon?
The close to a decade of weekly conversational classes with Maestra Mila Jagsich and six compañeros de clase were grounded in our every day lives, concerns and desires. We talked about the loss of parents in at first the rawest of terms given the limitations of our vocabularies. As time passed and the losses continued among us we were able to express nuanced emotions. We learned important words that conveyed comfort and support.
Classmates Esperanza’s diagnosis of breast cancer and Marci’s decision to be a bone marrow donor for her stricken sister became anatomy lessons, detailed accounts of medical treatments and profiles in courage. Lorenzo described the decision to start a family through surrogacy. We continued to learn new words that conveyed comfort, support and friendship.
One milestone occurred when we were able to make jokes–good, funny jokes. We all talked about our passion for travel and Quixote talked about learning to dance Flamenco. Woven through these lessons were Mila’s accounts of growing up in Córdoba Argentina eighty years ago.
Her stories were enchanting. When she was a little girl she convinced her father to give her a pair of flamingos. Time passed and she was delighted one day to see a pink feathered cloud rising upward from the back field of their property. She told us about a chance eye to eye meeting as a young child with a condor as tall as she in the Andean cordillera and described the way the family’s mattresses had all the wool pulled out, carded and fluffed once a year by an itinerant workman.
An hour of class was also devoted to reading literature–La Casa en Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros, Mexican American), Yo! (Julia Alvarez, DR American), Mi Pais Inventado and Los cuentos de Eva Luna (Isabel Allende, Chile) and El Testamento (John Grisham, American). El Testamento took a year to read.
The books generated discussions about politics, geography, women, history and the power of writing. One book– El cartero de Pablo Neruda (Antonio Skárpeta, Chile) was too challenging and we gave up on it. This pained me deeply–it was the one book written in Spanish instead of a translation from the English. It still sits on my shelf, next to Cien años de soledad (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), waiting for me.
So yes, it took nine years for an important linguistic sea change to occur within me. Those nine years brought me back to where I started, on 45th Street in City Heights. I was no longer the same person and 45th Street was not the same place. Entiendes?
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. T.S. Eliot “Little Giddings”