Having a Second Language

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Hola, a lectores de Carolina Divina. ¿Cómo están Uds. hoy? Those of you whose mother tongue is Spanish will recognize that simple greeting. How many of you who have spoken only English since birth can understand, or respond to the question being asked?

Most Americans, unfortunately, speak only one language, English. In the EU, in non-English speaking countries, an astounding 93 percent are fluent in a second language. A second language, often English, is a required part of the school curriculum, and that education begins early on, sometimes when the students are as young as six. In the U.S., most students don’t become exposed to a second language until high school. The majority of students take only the minimum requirement for graduation. Upon completion of the necessary credits, the language is quickly forgotten, and all the doors it opens swiftly slam shut. What a loss!

By the time I began to study Spanish in my New York City high school, I already had two years of Latin under my belt (and that’s fodder for an entirely different story!). I still had electives to fulfill, and I chose Spanish for one of them. Why Spanish? When you grow up in New York City, unless your parents keep you chained in your room, you have the benefit of being exposed to cultural diversity at its best. You are surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of a multitude of people of diverse nationalities. I grew up in a neighborhood in the Bronx populated by those of American, Irish, African and Hispanic extraction. Many of my friends were Spanish speaking (either Puerto Rican or Cuban), so it seemed natural to choose Spanish as a language to learn.

My Spanish teacher was a teeny-tiny little Jewish (!) woman, Mrs. Fassler. Thirty-four years after being in her class, I can still see her in my mind’s eye, barely five feet tall, blond, probably in her early forties and full of energy. It took no time at all to realize that Mrs. Fassler LOVED what she was teaching. She never confined herself to the textbook, although that was our lodestone. Even as neophytes in the language, she introduced us to the music, food, and culture that makes a language three-dimensional, rather than just foreign words on a page. The sounds of salsa reverberated in our room, and she enticed students with a Spanish heritage to bring in examples of the food they loved, so that we could all taste pasteles, arroz con habichuelas, flan. Her enthusiasm for her subject was contagious, and almost everyone in the class did so well that in the second year, we were taking advanced Spanish, rather than just Spanish II.

Once my Spanish speaking friends found that I was learning the language, they refused to speak to me in English any longer. At first, that was really difficult, because first year Spanish doesn’t equip you for the use of the language on a daily basis. One of the first things I learned to say in a hurry was “Más despacio, por favor.” (More slowly, please.) They spoke so fast! But they were supremely patient with me, and with the help of hand gestures, pointing to things and other supplementary assistance, I soon began to get at least the gist of what was being said to me. Learning Spanish like this was similar to the process of learning English as a baby and toddler. It’s much more natural than memorizing words from a book.

In the Advanced Spanish of our second year, we continued to assimilate additional vocabulary and grammar, and Mrs. Fassler introduced us to poetry and literature. This class in an all-girls’ school thrilled to the beautiful love poetry of José Ángel Buesa and wept at the end of “Marianela” when the title character died of a broken heart. By this time, I was hooked. And although I never studied Spanish any further (that was my senior year in high school), I have never lost my enjoyment of all the pleasures that facility in a second language brings. An additional high school class in French never engendered in me the same feelings as my Spanish class did, in spite (or maybe because) of a French-Canadian background. (The Russian I took in college in later years almost did, but, again, that’s another story).

I continued using my Spanish with my friends, working part-time in a neighborhood bodega (a small grocery store specializing in Hispanic items). I collected records with the irresistable Latin beat, enjoying Edye Gorme and Trio Los Panchos, the rival Titos (Puente and Rodríguez), and perhaps the best known, Xavier Cugat. I even became familiar with the mysterious and often misunderstood religion born in the Caribbean of African slaves, Santería.

But times change and years go by; we move or our friends move and we lose touch. When I left New York City for the suburbs of New Jersey, and then those of Long Island, I eventually lost contact with my Spanish speaking friends. The new neighborhoods were less diverse than those of my youth, offering little opportunity to practice my second language on any kind of a routine basis. When I went to México on business many years later, I had a chance to resurrect my Spanish, but found that, although I was still able to understand it, and make myself understood, my ease in the language had been sadly crippled by lack of use.

Over the past months, I have become friends with a wonderfully educated gentleman here on DivineCaroline, who is of Latino extraction. With his encouragement, I’m beginning to rediscover the joy of my second language. Occasionally, another friend, Jamie, will join in to practice her Spanish.  To my amigo I say: Mil gracías, Daniel, estoy para siempre en tu deuda.


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