29 June 2013

Seeing in Another Language

Everybody else worked on dairy farms. There were three guys from the Hutterian Bretheren commune. They spoke English and German. The other three were Latinos.

By after noon the first day, I was adopted by the Latino side of the room and spent breaks trying to help unravel English and Spanish veterinary terms as my classmates absorbed what the trainers' were saying. Select Sires gave out English and Spanish reference material but conducted the class in English.

Still, it wasn't until I taught English language learners—and renewed my study of Spanish—that I started to appreciate how another language can change a life story. 

Those are the stories Tom Miller collected and edited in “How I LearnedEnglish.”

Congressman Jose Serrano remembers learning English first from Frank Sinatra records. Author and essayist Richard Rodriguez describes the dichotomy between the “private” Spanish his family spoke during his childhood and the “public” English his parents spoke to strangers.

When the poet Alurista asked Gabriel Trujillo Munoz why he was so interested in English, the Mexican professor, poet, and former medical doctor said, “Because it allows me to see the United States as a dialogue and not a confrontation. There are so many voices, so many truths in every word, in every sentence. English helps me value my own language, Spanish, and offers me a smorgasbord of ideas and visions where I take what I need and like....”

Other contributors encountered English in the context of family relationships, personal aspiration, good teachers, bad teachers, flight from political oppression in Cuba, resentment of United States policy in Nicaragua.

Liliana Valenzuela talks about trying to pass on her Mexican heritage and the push-back she gets from her son. She says she once feared losing her voice as a writer in English or Spanish: “I froze for a few years; I agonized over which language to write in, and in which genre.... Eventually I came to trust whichever language my initial impulse led me into. Some stories have come out in English, some poems in Spanish, some flow from one to the other in an organic way, others seem destined to be in one language only.”

Artist Enrique Martinez Celaya wrote, “[Spanish] had been the feeling of the poems of Miguel Hernandez and Jorge Luis Borges, and the music of Joan Manuel Serrat, and the gestures of my father. In a similar way...learning English was learning to love the sensibility, the rustle, that connects the words.” 


  1. You've inspired me to return to my Italian studies. :-) And I will respond to your emails soon!! I came down with a humdinger of a virus and have been sick as can be. Sheesh! :-)

    1. Hey, thanks for stopping by. I'll look forward to hearing from you. Here's to your good health!