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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

¿Por Qué No Hablan Español?

Steve and Vanessa Lopez

We just returned from a wonderful sun filled vacation visiting family in Nicaragua. Almost all the food was fresh, the landscape was breathtaking, and the people were very friendly. There are plenty of giant insects and spiders that I still haven't gotten used to, but I think I'm making progress! My husband, Steve, is a native Spanish speaker yet he could never remember the Spanish word for spider. After this trip I don't think he will ever forget that araña means spider in Spanish.

One question that always comes up in the immigration debate is why can't they, referring to Latino immigrants, learn English? Yes, young children can learn languages quickly, however, it is much harder for anyone older to do so as easily. For example. my Grandmother Rosa and my Mom immigrated from Nicaragua to New Orleans when my grandmother was 26 and my mother was six or seven; and neither one of th em spoke a word of English.

My Grandmother used to tell me the story that about a month after she and my mother arrived in New Orleans,
they were walking along and my mother saw some of her friends from school. Grandma said that my mother ran up to her friends and started chatting away with them
in English. My grandmother said she was shocked and astounded. She said to my mother, "I didn't know you knew English. When did you learn it?" Grandma said Mom responded I don't know, I just know it.

Fortunately, while we were there, no one asked me, "Why don't you speak Spanish?" or gave me attitude because of my imperfect Spanish. However, my Grandfather Tele did suggest that I stay with him and the rest of my family in El Cacao, Nicaragua, so that I could learn better Spanish. He said Steve could just bring me back with him when he visits next year.

I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that the older I get the hard er it i s to learn Spanish or any other language. Although I can read Spanish pretty well, it is still extremely challenging trying to participate in a Spanish conversation. I want to be more conversant when I visit my family next year, so I am planning to take a conversational Spanish course. I have the luxury of taking time to learn a second language. Even so, learning a second language is hard, even with just one job. Plus my husband and my mother help me with my Spanish. I can't imagine trying to learn English if I were working two or three jobs, and trying to raise my children.

Don't assume that because someone doesn't speak English, or speaks with a strong accent, that he or she doesn't understand written and spoken English. I often understand a lot of what I read in Spanish, and a good deal of what people tell me. Ho wever, for me, the hardest thing about learning Spanish is articulating my thoughts verbally.

All the worst is that E nglish is a hard language to learn. In Spanish, the rules are straight forward, and there is one way to pronounce each of the letters. In English for every rule, there are two or three exceptions. We've got silent letters, and letters that can be pronounced a myriad of different ways. We've got lots of homonyms. One time when my Grandpa Tele was quizzing me on my Spanish flash cards he wanted to know, why we just don't spell know as no, and let the reader figure out which know/no we meant by the context of the rest of the sentence. I just told him "Yo no se".

Unless you learned a second language as a child, you will probably more comfortable communicating in your native language. Even if we retire to Nicaragua, English will always be my dominant language. I'm not going to quit studying Spanish, but at 41 years of age, I do think that I will always be most comfortable communicating in English.

Though cliché the saying don't judge a book by its cover is very relevant today. Yeah, there are people that come to this country and never learn to speak English, my Great Grandmother Rini, who spoke only the language of the Sicilian Race, was one of them. However, I think they are the exception, and that most new immigrants to the United States want to learn English and know that learning English is the key to a world of opportunity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I haven nothing but admiration for folks who can come to America and build lives for themselves. It is difficult enough for native English speakers to manage jobs, shelter, and transportation. It has to be twice as difficult to do all those things in a language not your own. That, to me, means that foreigners building any kind of lives for themselves here, are twice as smart as most of the rest of us!