Mother Tongue

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The student uses the word troca, Spanglish for truck. The standard Spanish word is camión. I correct her, but as usual I hesitate.   It should be an easy call to make. Troca is the wrong word. Correct it and move on. But it’s not that simple. I am not just correcting word choice. For my students, troca could evoke images of family, trips, parents’ jobs, anything. It’s a word that is part of their Latino identity. Who knows? It might even be a precious word for some of them. Yet when it’s used for "correct" Spanish, it loses some of that power.

The slang that we pick up from our parents, whether Spanglish, Southern, or African American, to name but a few examples, is such an integral part of us that learning the correct language, though practical and necessary, can be painful. It means giving up a piece of who we are.

Sometimes learning to speak "right" just means dropping a regional accent that is not socially or professionally acceptable. My wife went to a New York school where nuns made kids say "third" over and over until it stopped coming out "toid."

However, when learning the standard language goes beyond pronunciation to include vocabulary and grammar, the transition can be particularly painful. As a kid growing up in Southern Italy, my teachers treated Calabrese, the dialect I grew up speaking, as a tumor that needed to be excised. For them, the relationship between dialect and standard Italian was simple: The language was good, the dialect was bad.

Though these teachers "cured" my affliction and opened my world to education and to the other languages I now use professionally, their instruction caused me pain. When they corrected my word choice, it often felt as though they were correcting me. To them, the language I had spoken since birth was low class; therefore, I was low class, as were my parents.

When I teach standard Spanish now, I try to remember such feelings. I take special care to explain to my students that their Spanish is not bad, it’s just different. It has its own rules, and on its own terms, it is correct. It is when we try to apply the rules of standard Spanish that Spanglish becomes "wrong."

I point out to my students that their version of Spanish is not very different from the languages spoken in the United States by other immigrants. Newcomers have always made linguistic adjustments—sometimes inventing original words that blend the New and Old Worlds. The result is a new language, a vernacular that is neither English nor the native tongue.

It’s a normal process. After a generation or two, this hybrid language tends to disappear. Spanglish has stuck around only because immigration from Spanish-speaking countries continues at a steady rate. And it has become the source for a considerable body of literature reflecting the Latino immigrant experience. My students know little about this literature because schools rarely teach it. So, for these kids, literature is high class, it’s the proper language, and it does not mix with what they learn at home. Shaking their belief that Spanglish is wrong proves very difficult.

Yet, with time, some of the Spanglish literature will become widely accepted—legitimizing the language in which it was written. Writers have only to look at Dante, Italy’s great poet. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy, which he knew would be his masterpiece, in his native Florentine and not Latin, the language of his many other works. Florentine in the 13th century had the same prestige as Calabrese or Spanglish in the 20th—absolutely none. But Dante felt he owed his life to it. It was Florentine that he had learned as a boy, and it was in Florentine, he wrote, that his parents made love.

The standard language helps us function and even get ahead in life, but the native language will always be who we are. I know it too well. Every Sunday morning, I talk with my mother on the phone. We speak Calabrese, the only language she knows. I do not use it with anyone else. When my mother dies, the language I learned from her will also die for me, and so will an important part of myself.

Vol. 11, Issue 5, Page 45

Published in Print: February 1, 2000, as Mother Tongue
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