I have no memory of my first experience with Inglés. Maybe I heard it for the first time while inside the womb, or perhaps I heard it in the lyrics to a lullaby. Honestly, I can hardly remember Inglés at all—nor the feeling of having baby teeth or being shorter than four feet. While I no longer speak Inglés, I vividly remember the emotions and thoughts that filled my mind every time I encountered it.
Inglés was a language that the outside world imposed on me. Teachers taught me its grammar rules and vocabulary, textbooks provided me with homework lacking an apparent purpose, and songs spoke to me in said gibberish which they called Inglés. To me, a young child growing up in Guatemala, the language seemed confined to particular items and occasions without a discernible pattern. I would see it hidden in the back of LEGO® instruction booklets, mouthed by Disney characters who somehow still spoke in Español, and written in the name of my father’s business, “Grupo Barcode.” The outside world was begging me to learn Inglés, but why would I want to learn a language that was absent from my daily undertakings?
On the other hand, Español was the language of my reality. Mamá, Papá, Vitty, Tatí, Memé, Pepé, Abuelito, Abuelita—they all spoke it, and so did I. I was an expert at the language; I knew all the slang and was proficient at its pronunciation—I could even understand when my friends were cursing me out. Even on occasions when Inglés seemed to be present, Español would dominate. Or so it was during the first nine years of my life, back when my pals were my cuates and when I would eat O-ray-ohs rather than Oreos.
As I grew older and went through more experiences, I began to associate Inglés with a particular sense of grandeur and excitement. At one point, I took my first trip to Disney World® and was surrounded for the first time by gringos. As we navigated through the crowds, I had the sense of drowning in a language I could barely understand—but it added to the excitement of being in a foreign country. Iconic phrases such as “keep your hands, arms, and legs inside the vehicle at all times” and “it’s a small world after all” were incorporated into my schema of Inglés. Yet, I felt no personal connection to the language; the thought of speaking it never crossed my mind. As soon as we would enter our hotel room, Español would once again dominate.
Learning Inglés in Guatemala felt irrelevant to my life, given that the language was fully restricted to schoolwork. In fact, according to the British Council, learning it as a foreign language in developing countries is a challenging process for both students and teachers. Findings from a study on English learners from Francophone countries revealed that they most often view English “as a means of immediate academic advancement” (Focho 21). After a sample of Cameroonian students was offered activities to raise their motivation for learning English, their perceptions on the language markedly improved, and so did their success on yearly examinations. This goes to show that second-language learners must be motivated to speak a second language, which cannot be obtained solely from textbooks or worksheets. Some people derive motivation from their teachers or family, but it took moving to a different country for me to feel the need to learn English.
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A couple years passed, and we flew into the United States again—this time, without booking a return flight to Guatemala. Nothing seemed more exciting than moving to the land where Inglés was spoken; the place where dreams apparently came true. But only a week later, I was left behind closed doors in a classroom full of gringuitos excited for their first day of school. One of my classmates asked me, “What’s up?,” after which I stared at the ceiling for a few seconds until he burst into laughter. Eventually, the dreadful school day came to an end, and I was back home with my parents. That evening was when I realized that no one around me spoke Inglés, the only English I knew.
Adjusting to a new lifestyle, culture, and community all while learning a new language was draining, both physically and emotionally. Every word that I spoke in English seemed to carry additional weight, compared to its equivalent in my Inglés. Words were attached to connotations, latent meanings, and abstract grammar structures that my mind could not immediately assimilate. My speech went from being a fluid stream of expressions in Español to a clogged drain through which English words could barely pass. English was neither grandiose nor exciting.
Given the challenges that English initially posed for me, my school placed me in a program for English learners. Every other day, I was offered special tutoring, but it came at the expense of recess, which had been my only escape from language. I also received a pocket dictionary to keep with me at all times. Within months, I had devolved from a star student, un estudiante brillante, to a handicapped “ESOL kid.”
While riding the bus back home, I would desperately anticipate stepping through the front door and hearing my mother greeting me in her ever-so-welcoming voice, “Quiqui! Mi lindo, qué bien que ya llegaste.” My “handy dandy” dictionary could never translate my mother’s pleasing voice, the sweet look on her face, or the love that her message contained. Everyone in my family thought and felt in Español, so any time we’d be faced with English, our emotions would remain untranslated.
The first person I ever considered an acquaintance in this country was Sebastian, a boy my age who spoke Spanish. He was one of the first individuals to approach me during my first week of school and demonstrate interest in my story. In a mix of English circumlocution and expressions in Español, I summarized the recent changes in my life to him. For the first time ever, I felt the need to justify my way of speaking; I could no longer expect to socialize with someone without being asked where I was from or why I had speech difficulties. I no longer felt defined by who I was; I felt defined by my language barriers. As a result, I felt less comfortable being my talkative self.
Considering the psychological implications of learning a language, it makes sense why I avoided situations that could require a verbal response from me. When children learn a new language after moving to a different country, there is a collection of social phenomena that is typically observed. This includes a “silent period” in which children focus carefully on auditory comprehension and struggle with oral forms of expression (Roseberry-McKibbin and Brice). Yet, my family and I saw my reclusiveness as abnormal rather than a natural product of the language barrier. In hindsight, programs for English Language Learners should explicitly recognize these challenges to make pupils feel more comfortable in their new surroundings.
As months went by, I started to learn vocabulary at an increasing rate. Through the ESOL program, my sister and I took strides along the path towards fluency. Gradually, thousands of terms were incorporated into our Inglés, transforming it into broken English. We learned words such as “plethora,” “miscellaneous,” and “strife;” we learned about prepositions and conjunctions; and we learned how to form sentences in the subjunctive mood. But we never learned what “YOLO,” “lit,” or “yikes” meant. After a year of the program, we passed the fluency exam with a nearly perfect score. But we never made it into safety patrol or became part of large friend groups. We were still aliens in a world of gringos.
My sister and I had no choice when it came to learning English; our success in school was contingent on our ability to communicate with others. But my parents, who worked at their own electronics company, had minimal exposure to the language. The majority of their projects were implemented in Latin America, and all negotiations were dealt with the Spanish-speaking businessmen of Miami, Florida. Mom gained proficiency in medical English after hundreds of doctor visits, while Dad quickly learned all the jargon pertinent to his field of expertise. But neither could sustain an English conversation without the other participant asking them to move closer, speak louder, or repeat what they said. And every time I heard their stilted dialogue, my throat would tighten up.
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Looking back at the first nine years I spent in the U.S.A., there is one question that still torments me daily when I step out into the public sphere. Do I feel a sense of belonging in American society, or am I still stuck between two worlds?
Until nearly a month ago before I moved to college, my private life took place in Spanish. Despite all external influences and interactions, my family retained our Spanish culture and never let go of our intimate forms of communication. Mom bid me farewell with a heartwarming “te amo, mi hijo lindo,” and Dad gave me his characteristic tight hug. I never regretted not pushing my parents to gain more fluency in English, because the language would’ve encroached on our private world. School and technology alone transformed our Español into Spanish, distancing my sisters and me from our past in Guatemala. But keeping in frequent contact with our family overseas kept us attached to our culture.
Attending grade school for nine years in the U.S. taught me thousands of lessons about academics, personal skills, and American culture. But was I truly exposed to American society? Miami, also known as “Little Cuba,” is 27% Hispanic, so I had more than enough Hispanic classmates whom I could socialize with. Even my accent was fairly common around me, so I had little incentive to adjust my pronunciation of certain words. My school would welcome dozens of immigrants yearly, which constantly reminded me of my past experiences as a newcomer. Essentially, I’ve been swimming in American waters without removing my life jacket, but what will happen once my Hispanic surroundings no longer keep me afloat?
College has introduced me to a more authentic version of American culture. My campus is located in Atlanta, the capital of the Southeastern U.S., so I like to describe it as a melting pot of American dialects. Deep inside, I have some fear of being judged based on my accent or not being able to express myself clearly. The most important question, however, is whether I am truly fluent in English or am still hanging by a thread from Inglés. And as a result of my new surroundings, will I lose fluency in Spanish, the one language that has always followed me?
After all, the winner of the language tug-of-war remains unclear, but I have learned one thing for sure—language is more than a collection of words used to express oneself. Teachers, textbooks, and tutorials taught me Inglés, but nothing more than my real-life experiences taught me English. Yesterday, I might’ve said, “Goodbye everyone; thank you for your time.” But today, I say, “Have a nice day, y’all; thank you for coming to my TED talk.”
Focho, G. N. (2011). Student perceptions of English as a developmental tool in Cameroon. In 926207144 726323413 H. Coleman (Author), Dreams and realities: Developing countries and English language. London: British Council.
Roseberry-McKibbin, C., & Brice, A. (n.d.). Acquiring English as a Second Language. Retrieved September 13, 2020, from https://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/easl/