The War on Languages
February 24, 2020
Learning to read is an experience often accompanied by a sense of accomplishment and pride after having finished your first book. It is usually met with encouragement from those around you to hone this valuable life skill. Well, this was true for me within the walls of my home but at school, I was met with a different reality.
I was born to a Cuban immigrant family in Clarendon, Jamaica. Most of my family members fled their homeland due to the political climate and came to this foreign land not knowing a drop of English or the island’s creole. I was therefore educated in the language they were most comfortable in, Spanish. My first words were in Spanish and so were the words of the book I ever learned to read at three and a half years old. I remember the first book I ever read named “Cenicienta”, the Spanish counterpart of Disney’s Cinderella. I remember tripping over words like “cascarrabias” and wondering if my madrina was a hada like Cenicienta’s. Classic fairy tales surrounding evil witches and beautiful princesses pricking their fingers on spinning wheels seemed to be my main interest while learning to read. I remember one instance when for Christmas, my grandmother sent from Cuba a vintage storybook entitled “Blancanieves,” the Spanish version of the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I was so excited to read it that I finished it that very night.
My family was impressed with my ability to read fluently at such a tender age and decided to send me to preschool. I was so excited to go to school and learn how to do new things and more about the world around me, however, my teachers did not share in my excitement. When I began school, I was met with xenophobic abuse by my educators and peers because I did not speak the same language they did. I was presumed to be disadvantaged because I had not learned “the language of the land.”
Jamaica is an English-speaking country with virtually no Spanish speakers outside the few that are employed to teach the language throughout the island. Everyone who attended and were employed at my primary school were unable to teach me due to our language barrier. They blamed my mother for not having taught me English and taught me a language that was” useless” to my education. I was seen as a lost cause and was seated at the back of the class for they feared that I would distract my classmates with my “gibberish.” I would sit in the back of a class of fifty students trying to get the teacher’s attention when I would hear my fellow classmates trying to pronounce their letters. “Porque ellos están repitiendo ese sonido “buh”?” I would ask myself, confused by the sound of my classmate’s annunciating the sound of their letters. The teachers gave up on me before they even tried, but my mother did not. She tried her best to teach me a language unfamiliar to her, studying English grammar from thick textbooks for hours to later turn and teach me and my siblings the simplified version of what she had learned. She would play games with us, label every item in the out with both their Spanish and English counterparts. Las luces turned into lights and the word “carpet” rolled off my tongue faster than “alfombra” ever did. By the age of 5 I was reading far above my grade level and had an impressive vocabulary.
I would read the Spanish tales and compare them to their English counterparts and notice the difference in grammar and realize expressions unique to both languages and false cognates, for example, “morro viejo nunca sera buen cristiano” doesn’t really make sense when translated to english and “un delito” is definitely not a delight. I would go on to read books from the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series to reading Franz Kafka at age 12.
I developed a love and great appreciation for literature and its connection to language. Questions regarding slang and idiomatic expressions began to float around my head like “why is it that in English we call a toilet the john,” or questions like “why do we in the Dominican Republic ‘estoy en olla’ when they are not saying anything related to being in pots?” I became obsessed with highlighting expressions that would not translate well in the two languages before learning a couple more to add to the mix. By the time I was 15, I was reading Alexandre Dumas’ “Les Trois Mousquetaires” and translating the dialogue to Italian to see how different the two really were.
Reading has grown to be my greatest superpower and one of the most impactful skills in my life. I enjoy burying my nose in the pages of a novel and analyzing texts a few centuries my senior. I never seem to get bored while reading and could do it for hours on end. I don’t exactly have as much time for reading stuff I personally am interested in as I did during the earlier years of my youth, but I have continued to analyze and collect books outside my course required materials. Contrary to the previously widely held belief that learning to read and write Spanish first would leave my intellectually impaired, I have used the Spanish language as the basis for learning four other foreign languages and further my thirst for knowledge. It has also played a key role in me deciding to pursue a profession in Education, specializing in teaching children with English as a second language.