Our theme for the month of March is “Part Two.” Writers were challenged to choose a piece they’ve previously contributed to the post calvin and revisit it, perhaps writing a sequel or reflecting on how things have changed.
I speak with an accent. The second I open my mouth, you realize I’m not from here—that is, if you hadn’t already guessed by looking at me.
“Where are you from?” people ask on the phone. “Your accent is cute,” friends will say when I trip up on those “r”s and “rr”s that I have only ever been able to approximate. I live in the midst of Spanish, but I still don’t speak it perfectly. This has made me feel frustrated—it’s made me feel limited, but never once has it ever made me think that what I had to say was not valuable.
My accent, however strong or strange, doesn’t show that I don’t speak Spanish, as much as that I do speak English.
More than 360 million people speak English as a first language, and the number of people speaking it as a second or other language stretches the number well past a billion. With more movies, scientific articles, and web interactions taking place in English than in any other language, it’s quickly becoming the most powerful language in the world. My accent is a glimpse behind the curtain; it shows I’m comfortable in that world.
For millions of others in the world, however, speaking English with an accent, the world is less forgiving. The United States is an astonishingly monolingual country. Besides immigrants and their families, the number of comfortably bilingual people is scarce and often concentrated in specific fields. And when you’ve never felt your own complex thoughts squashed and distorted through a language you do not yet speak well—it’s hard to appreciate someone else’s untranslatable depth.
I will say this—before I learned Spanish, I had this idea that languages were more or less interchangeable: different tools you could use to say the same thing. If you believe this, English’s hegemony is no great loss. Rather, it’s an advantage—it’s exciting to sit around a table with people from Poland, Japan, Argentina, Egypt, and have a common language. Also, if you believe this, you will think that people from Poland, Japan, and Argentina can translate all their thoughts perfectly to English, and be perfectly understood.
I read a lot of news in both English and Spanish, and so I see this idea in process. “¡La intensidad de las protestas no va a caer!” becomes, “The intensity of the protests will not fall,” which is technically correct, but sounds stranger. The New York Times published this train wreck of a quote—“Facing the impossibility of determining a winner, the only way possible so that the people of Honduras are the victors is a new call for general elections”—which sounded far more natural and eloquent in the language in which it was first spoken.
In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway writes Spanish dialogue in a startling form that borrows Spanish syntax. “What barbarity!” his characters exclaim, and you can hear, if you listen, the falling lilt of their voice, the words they actually spoke—¡Qué barbaridad!
These are just small examples—languages aren’t fully interchangeable. They’re not different hammers and nails with the same sort of utility that build the same sort of chairs. And if we judge them that way, by their intelligibility when translated into English, we will be left with a biased sense of both their eloquence and their utility. No other language captures ideas as well in English as English, of course, but try to translate an English idea to Portuguese or Swahili and see how the shine may fade.
The more that I used Spanish, the more I spoke it, heard it, read it, and wrote it, the more I appreciated nuances that English could never quite grasp. I began to write poems in Spanish, and they came out sharp and golden, though crude still, of course, but this surprised me—the language seemed to pull me to places I would not have arrived in English.
I think a better metaphor for languages is artistic media, each as different from each other as pen and ink is from watercolor is from oil is from bronze. (Each capable of portraying the same subject, yet no one asks whether the world really needed another Madonna and Child.)
Now, I am no Columbus. I have no intention of claiming to have discovered a language that throughout the hispanohablante word is living and active in hundreds of millions of mouths. I know that, to use the words of Joaquín Sabina, before me, the Spanish language ya existía,
It already existed,
It already sung,
It already lied,
It already dreamed,
It already played,
It already laughed.
Only now, though, am I beginning to pull back the curtain.
What if we heard all accents this way—not as a sign that English is not one’s first language, but as a sign that another language is? As a sign that this person can think, laugh, and dream in a tongue with secrets we may never learn to appreciate?
Would it make us more patient?
Would it inspire us to learn?