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Work of Art: Language interference? No way

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By Art Trujillo

This isn’t going to be a discourse on the “English Only” movement, which is gaining momentum in many areas. Expressing my opinions on the monolingual approach would take far more time and space than is available here.
But I once fell victim to a virulent e-mail forwarder from Deming. She sent to everyone in her address book a treatise by a congressman whose take on learning any language but English seemed — at least to me — bigoted. The politico’s dictum was: English is what is spoken in the U.S.; if you don’t like it, leave.
Yet, as I promised, that’s not what today’s column will be about. That’ll come later.
On what side of the argument do you fall? After many years of teaching, I believe I’ve heard every argument for and against the learning of a language other than English. We’ve all heard about kids who were punished for speaking Spanish on the playground; and we’ve already memorized the litany of reasons for English only, the chief of which is that “The way to get ahead in the U.S. is through English.”
How many of you got short-changed because of the fear that learning Spanish (or some other non-English tongue) would prevent you from concentrating on English? My childhood ironically de-emphasized the learning of Spanish.
Like millions of people in the Southwest, I am certain our folks spoke Spanish to each other but English to us.
The result, predictably, is that we grew up understanding our parents’ language, but we didn’t speak it, at least not very well. When it came to grandparents, well, forget it! They spoke only Spanish, which we understood a bit, but in broken Spanish, our replies sometimes didn’t register.
But rather than make this a discussion on the problems, perils and puzzlements of coping with two languages, let’s discuss the belief by some that there’s a kind of “interference” when one tries to handle two languages. My experience, being brought up in an eastside barrio, where most of my neighbors spoke Spanish, was intimidating.
Once, I asked Mr. Peña, our across-the-street grocer, for a package of “cigarros,” because, after all, Dad had sent me to buy him a Rio-Tan cigar.
I was laughed at. A couple of neighborhood kids in the store practically made my error part of David Letterman’s Top 10 list. “Did you hear what Mannie said at Peña’s store?”
That practically became the cause célèbre in our little world on Railroad Avenue. You see, I not only botched the pronunciation of “cigarro,” with my inability to roll my r’s, but I used the wrong word. Old Man Peña must have laughed himself to sleep that night, over the crime I committed in calling a cigar a “cigarro” instead of a “puro.”
Another barrier many of us faced was the unadulterated, unmitigated ability for elders to laugh at our efforts to pronounce certain Spanish words.
These adults, I’m quite convinced, liked to set us up by asking us a question they knew we’d struggle with, then laugh at us. The laughter didn’t subside until everyone within earshot got a load of our butchering of the King’s Spanish.
That was by no means a confidence builder.
At the time that I was struggling with both the mechanics and the pronunciation of Spanish, I was careful never to criticize the way my critics spoke English. No, that wouldn’t have been fair, because youngsters must always be respectful toward their elders.
So I learned what I could off the streets and really benefitted by a couple of semesters of conversational Spanish taught by the greatest teacher at Immaculate Conception School, Sister John Dennis, whose expectations were strict but fair. During my senior year of high school, I needed to make a decision: How much stock do I put into what I’d heard all my life about language interference?
The theory was simple: If thou darest attempt a language other than English, thou shalt fail miserably at both.
And in a college English course, the professor lectured on evolution, emphasizing three life forms among animals: terrestrial, arboreal and aquatic. So he asked the class the meaning of these words. No volunteers.
Then it hit me: We’re talking about three words whose roots relate to Spanish and Latin words we’ve used for years. In order, they refer to the earth (tierra), trees (arboles) and water (agua). The concept became clear, especially to those with a background in Spanish.
Perhaps that was just a mini-lesson, but it convinced me that rather than interfering with, or competing with, English, Spanish serves to enhance our knowledge of English.
I’ve taken coursework in German; I dabble in French and hope to take a course in Russian this fall at Highlands. True, false cognates (words that are spelled the same but mean something different) give me fits, but I’m old enough not to let it bother me.
When people stop speaking the language of their grandparents, that’s an indication that the language is on a downward spiral, and this phenomenon most commonly occurs when the numbers of speakers are small. And we have to wonder whether and to what extent today’s children brush aside opportunities to learn languages because of the fear of being ridiculed.
As for me, I’ve become voracious when it comes to attempting some of the major languages of the world. Will language interference be a factor? I doubt it. And if people laugh at how I sound, so be it.
I can take it. And besides, I don’t smoke puros or anything else.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to art@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.