Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Speaking of Language…
Despite the many years of schooling I’ve been through, I still can’t speak Spanish fluently. Let's rewind to the beginning of my story. My grandma was Latina and her parents were fluent Spanish speakers. But they didn’t want to teach my grandma Spanish or speak it to her because they wanted her to appear more “American”. When my grandma went to high school and she had to take a language, the school wouldn’t let her take Spanish because she was Latina. My grandma learned Spanish on her own and tried to speak it as much as possible because she wanted to connect with her culture and her parents. But the blatant erasure of Spanish from my Grandma’s life bled into my mother’s life as well. When my mom was a little kid, Spanish was her first language (miraculously). But when my mom went to kindergarten, they forced her to speak English and she soon forgot all the Spanish she knew. And now, my mom does not speak Spanish at all.
Now I enter the picture, a quarter Latina girl who wanted to learn the language of my Grandma’s family. When I got to high school, I took Spanish for three years. Then in college I had to take more language classes to get my English Literature degree (ironic, I know), so I took more Spanish. Now that I’ve graduated college, what does my Spanish look like? Not good, I’m not going to lie. All those years of learning got me almost nowhere. I know simple phrases, but I could not hold a conversation with a fluent Spanish speaker to save my life.
The school system did not truly value language learning. I remember my Spanish classes being about grammar and vocabulary and some speaking out loud, but it always felt awkward and embarrassing to speak to other students in the classes. I think we were embarrassed for existing at this stage in life, so trying to speak a foreign language made life that much harder.
The only times I spoke Spanish was at home with my brother, who took the same classes as me. He was excited to learn Spanish and he enthusiastically spoke it when he could. He can easily fool people that he is a fluent Spanish speaker, that’s how good he is. But he encouraged me to speak with him and it was fun. If I messed up I would just try again, no embarrassment in sight.
And that is the whole point, isn’t it? To speak the language you are learning. I mean, what’s the point if you don’t? I realized, with my family history and my own journey, that speaking a language is the best way to learn it. The classrooms were stiff and awkward, difficult to mess up and be okay with it (It was made worse by how shy I was). But in the real world, my brother (and sisters), speaking the language was fun and easy, messing up was not a problem. Speaking a new language is difficult, yes, but the more you speak it, the easier it gets. In a journal article about language learning and communication, it says:
In this ordered universe in which we live no human being (and almost no living being) can exist in isolation: all must be bound together in many formal and informal ways. No one can endure alone. To live, people must communicate. Language is only one aspect of the means by which we may achieve this binding process. In teaching language, we are teaching individuals how they may be bound together, how they feel together, how they interact, how they live together (Wylie 778).
With this in mind, we are able to remind ourselves when learning a language that we are learning how to connect with others. Language is communication, not a subject to check off your list of curriculum. I find this quote to be very true for myself. Language is life, so speaking a language is the only way to truly understand and learn it.
When you speak a new language, you are learning not just the words of the language, but the culture that it is from. And with this cultural context comes the culture's vocal cues. Vocal cues are a fancy way of saying how a person said something. “Good communication -comfortable, spontaneous, productive- requires the ability to produce and appropriately interpret vocal cues” (Pearce 857). Each language has different vocal cues, and the best way to learn these cues is to speak the language with native speakers. My siblings and I picked up on this and it made the language come alive. We learned how to say things, not just what to say. By learning vocal cues and body language, we were able to communicate better and even spoke with our grandma and she loved it.
One thing you can take from my story is that you can’t live life by the textbook. You have to get out there and experience it. That’s what it is like with learning a language. You have to get out there and speak to people instead of just reading the textbook grammar and vocabulary. Sure those things are important, but speaking is the key to success.
Wylie, Laurence. “Language Learning and Communication.” The French Review, vol. 58, no. 6, 1985, pp. 777–785., www.jstor.org/stable/393019. Accessed 19 June 2020.
Pearce, W. Barnett, and Theodore H. Mueller. “Vocalic Communication in Second-Language Learning.” The French Review, vol. 48, no. 5, 1975, pp. 856–863. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/389334. Accessed 20 June 2020.