What language barriers were like for me in Mexico
My thoughts on America’s relationship with foreign languages
Standing in front of a frutería, a fruit store
Until visiting Mexico, I had never been to a country where I knew the native language. However, this was never a problem because every country I’d visited prior had an English-speaking population, something that is becoming more and more common around the world. Being in Mexico, a Spanish-speaking country, was a little bit different because even though I was surrounded by people who understood English, I also understood Spanish.
So, what was it like being in a country where for the first time ever I generally understood the local language?
Let’s start with some background on my language skills
Hilda graphic novels translated into Spanish
Even though I can process the linguistic logic of Spanish better than English, I consider my Spanish to be basic at best. You know when people refer to a foreigner’s English as “broken”? That is how I’m tempted to describe my Spanish, but the thing is, describing someone’s use of a language as “broken”—at least within the context of American English—is low key a power play. It’s often used as a way to identify certain people as “other”, inspiring stereotypes and contributing to the “us vs. them” mentality the U.S. is so famous for. However, sometimes the term—and its corresponding speech—is used in a way that reclaims some aspect of a culture, turning something viewed as negative into something to be proud of.
Here’s an essay by Amy Tan that I think offers a really beautiful account of “broken” English, languages spoken at home and outside of it, the overall the use of English in the U.S., and a list of other things.
I know, I digressed, but what can I say? I have a thing for language.
But to wrap it up, when it comes to Spanish, I would give my reading a B-, writing a C, speaking a C-, and listening a D.
What I was able to do with my Spanish in Mexico City
The books I bought at the Librería del Fondo de Cultura Económica, a bookstore in Condesa
I was able to buy a book on Gustav Klimt, one of my favorite artists, and read it. I was also able to buy some snacks at a 7-Eleven and order two teas at an airport café. These few moments were cool, but I anticipated being able to use Spanish more. What I didn’t account for, however, was 1) The fact I was much more confident constructing sentences in my head than actually speaking them and 2) Most of the time people addressed me in English first, probably because I and the motley crew of students I hung out with just had the classic American tourist vibe.
My thoughts about America’s relationship with language
You can find American texts everywhere, translated to other languages or still in English. I can’t say the same about international texts in the U.S.
In our group of twelve, only two of us spoke Spanish (and by “two” I mean there was one person who was fluent and two of us who’s basic understandings get a ½ point). I felt really bummed out about my ½ point because there I was experiencing a country that spoke a language I could actually comprehended but couldn’t confidently use.
It was amidst this feeling of disappointment that I asked myself how and why I was in this situation. After all, I had started learning Spanish a decade prior and had never given it up, so why wasn’t I fluent by now? Then I realized the realities of my situation:
My formal Spanish education stopped when I ran out of Spanish classes to take in my freshman year of high school.
That the reason I didn’t continue formal training—be it at a community class, private tutor, or uni course—I would have had to shell out money I didn’t have.
And that even the little things I had done to keep my Spanish skills sharp—things like keeping my phone in Spanish, watching television in Spanish, and using Duolingo—just wasn’t enough and nowhere near the same as learning through face-to-face conversations, dialoguing in Spanish with someone the way people do in real life.
All these realizations stirred up more reflections about America’s relationship with language. Now, I could really get into this topic and the many intersections it crosses, but for now I won’t dive too deep into it. I won’t linger on the fact continuing to learn a second language in the U.S. is a very self-motivated act requiring a surplus of money, time, and general access to necessary resources (luxuries that many African Americans don’t have). I also won’t linger on how commonplace “unintentionally” segregated schools are in the U.S., creating environments that prevent young people from being exposed to different languages through lack of diversity. No, for now I will just talk about America’s general relationship with language as a whole.
I’ve expressed my thoughts about this topic in other posts, but there’s no harm in repeating it: The U.S. does not encourage or expect its citizens to learn a second language because it expects everyone else to learn English. It’s just one of the many ways the U.S. upholds its “big man on the international campus” persona—it’s unwavering arrogance and narcissism—but at the expense of its citizens’ ability to operate on an international stage.
You remember when I started this post by saying that every other country, I’d been to always had an English-speaking population even though English was never the country’s first language? Well, all those places were filled with people who were bilingual. Often neither of the languages they were fluent in were English but being bilingual—whether being doubly fluent or just understanding the basics of a language other than your own—was a norm in these places. And if you look at Europe, you will find that understanding multiple languages is such a norm that many Europeans find it bizarre that U.S. citizens only speak English.
To hear that as a U.S. citizen, as someone who wants to function well outside her home country, and as someone who has tried their best to be as bilingual as possible understandably makes me feel inadequate even though my lack of bilingualism isn’t entirely my fault. It’s not my fault that my predominantly black school didn’t offer more Spanish courses. It’s not my fault that I’ve never had the money to take additional classes. It’s not my fault that I haven’t been able to learn fluent Spanish through an app or television. But it is America’s fault for not deeming multilingualism as something important, something to fund, a knowledge that it wants its citizens to have. That in itself speaks volumes about American values: Who we value, what they sound like, what environment they come from, what resources they’re expected to have access to, and what they should be expected to know as a global citizen. The United States’ relationship with language is just another subtle power play based in privilege.