The first phrase of English I was ever taught was “I don’t speak English.” I was trained to say that in my first visit to the United States when I was 6 years old, when I was on my way to meet my first niece. At some time, my family decided that I should be raised in the United States, so that’s when that phrase became a first step to second language learning more than just a tourist survival tool.
Today, native speakers of English are surprised when I say English is not my first language. “You speak perfect English. You don’t even have an accent,” they say. “It’s still there, it’s just very subtle and hard to pick up, but it’s still there,” I respond.
The time space between being a Spanish speaking child to becoming an English speaking adult is my experience of bilingualism, of the careful balance between two worlds: the Spanish speaking world of the family, and the English speaking world of the country.
As a kid, the first challenge was to face the anger of people who could not understand me and that I could not understand. In elementary school, substitute teachers that did not speak Spanish would yell at me when I couldn’t follow their directions. A lunch lady threw my food away because I couldn’t give her an explanation of why I forgot my meal ticket. A teacher scoffed at me when I tried to explain that when I get migraine headaches, I can’t think well, and can’t do my homework. Also, back in the Spanish speaking world of the family I often had to be the translator, since I was often the only one available who spoke a little bit of English. When I tried ordering pizza for them, the restaurant would often hang up. When I tried ordering fast food for them in person, they would often get upset with me for getting the order wrong.
I was told that my mission was to learn English, and so I did, but the process entailed much more than just that. I had to open my mind to different cultures and ways of seeing things. Whereas before in Mexico, I could easily see what my role was in relation to society, easily consume the popular mindsets, the religion, the traditions, the expectations, the United States was able to destroy my sense of stability and forced my eyes to adjust to the glaring light of alternative cultures, viewpoints, expectations, and mindsets.
When I was 10, I got to briefly visit Mexico, and found a tremendous amount of relief from the challenge of learning English. I could navigate the world with Spanish alone, a language I already knew, with people I already knew. Walking down the street to the local grocery store, even the cashier remembered who I was. I was extremely happy with that linguistic and cultural environment, that I begged to stay. I promised that I would do well in school, that I would never change my mind about staying. But I was given no choice, I had to go back to the United States. The last day when I had to say goodbye to my grandparents, I promised that I would see them again. They passed away before I ever did.
Back in the United States, I quickly realized that the process of becoming bilingual was not just a matter of learning a language, but about immersing into a culture. The culture and the language could not be separated. The clichés, the proverbs, the catchphrases of American English are intertwined with an American mindset, just like the popular Spanish sayings in Latino culture are interwoven with the heritage of Latin America.
My first three grades of elementary happened under bilingual education. Instruction was initially in Spanish and as the grades progressed, more and more English was incorporated into the lessons, until the classes became exclusively in English. Every grade I moved up, the more dread I felt. I was afraid of being in a class where only English was spoken. I was afraid of not understanding, and not being understood.
Little did I know, Spanish became a tool of English acquisition. The “fancy words” of English often have a Latin root, which made me recognize them since they were similar to Spanish words. My academic English vocabulary expanded very quick because of that mnemonic. I also memorized words that were hard to spell by sounding them out in Spanish. Since Spanish has a strong orthographic/verbal correlation (words are spelled the way they sound), I was able to sound out hard-to-spell English words and memorize them. As my English writing skills improved, my English pronunciation improved just a few years later.
I could never really understand the argument against bilingual education, since I benefited tremendously from it. A news camera crew visited my classroom in 4th grade and interviewed some of my classmates to see if bilingual education was worth it. A friend told me that he saw me on the news a few days later. Eventually, California voters opted to get rid of it.
California voters back them opted to push against the threat of words, of a language, of a culture. That was their way of shifting the balance between two worlds that bilingualism entails.
As for me, to this day, I still carry the delicate balance of two discourse communities. The popular compromise of many is to use self-determination to promote Chicano-ism and Spanglish. Very often friends who were born in the U.S. will throw me a Spanish word or two with the aim of cultural appeal and bonding. Very often I hear Chicanos say that they belong to neither the United States nor Mexico, since their way of speaking does not let them fit into either. It’s an identity crisis that I can understand very well, but do not relate to it. I am a guest in this country and not a member of it, almost like an extended tourist. I already have the citizenship of one country and will not demand the citizenship of another. I already have a mother tongue and will not mix it with another as much as I can help it. The Chicano community can have my love and support, but never my membership.
With that said, I treasure the value of knowing two languages. To be bilingual is to speak two languages, and to live in two worlds. Your realm of possibilities expands because you belong to different discourse communities and can navigate them with ease. In the expanded availability of media you can note a richness in the shades of meaning that you would not perceive otherwise. To be bilingual is to carry the legacy of two civilizations with you at all times.
That’s why as I look back at the tremendous challenges I went through to learn English, I have to see the struggle with a lense of appreciation. The empowerment I gained through language learning is something no one can take away. If I channel it properly, it will be my tool to travel the world and teach English in different nations, beginning and ending with the one that brought me to the world.