Friday, May 11, 2012

So You Want to Learn Spanish?! Hooray! English-only, No Way!

Our Labor Drives the World Economy and The Corn is Ours! by Favianna Rodriguez

Legalization Now! and The Land Belongs to Those Who Work It: the people of these continents have walked these lands from the beginning of time by Jesus Barraza 

I studied Spanish in high school for four years and since have drawn on this foundation to get by in communication with Spanish-speakers whose paths' I've crossed, in stores, on a Greyhound buses, city subways, farms, etc.  Living in Central Vermont, I'm not surrounded by an abundance of languages spoken around me.  While there are pockets of neighborhoods and families that aren't limited to English, unless you are connected with these communities, it's easy to live a English-only existence.  How unfortunate!   ¡Qué pena!

I have friends from other countries who speak four or more languages!  I am reminded of this everytime I start to say or hear the term 'English as a second language.'  This term fails to acknowlege that while someone may be new to English, they may be fluent in multiple other languages and could put most monolingual US-Americans to shame!  Being a white person born and raised in the US with US citizenship, it's important to me to not expect that everyone in the world accomodate me and speak English all the time.  Even when people are completely fluent in English, if they were raised with Spanish, I like to communicate in Spanish, as far as I am able.  

Learning Spanish not only helps me communicate with people who I otherwise may not be able to communicate with, it also helps me understand English and the similar roots of words.  My mind thinks in more interconnected, poetic ways when I'm in spaces that include more than just English.  Even when I don't understand at all, I love watching sign language interpreters, listening to radio stations when I visit cities (sometimes not even knowing what the language is!), and just being around other words and sounds. 

Another term I stop myself from saying when I start is 'foreign language.'  In a country made up almost entirely of immigrants, what is a 'foreign language' anyway?!  And who decided that English would be the non-official language of this country?  (The US, no official language exists at the federal level.)  Certainly not the people who were here before British colonizers arrived.  

English-only policies, from "subtle" encouragement by educators for people to only speak English in the home to attacks on cultural studies and politicians demanding that people "Speak English!", encourage cultural genocide.  As someone who's ancestors assimilated to become (white) "Americans," I don't want anyone else to have to give up their languages/ accents, dances, traditional practices, concepts of health/healing, medicinal plant traditions, music, foods, etc.  This loss creates an emptiness that I believe is at the root of a lot of problems, such as racism and cultural appropriation (ie, stealing/commodifying other 

peoples' music /art/food/ceremonial events/ religious items/clothes without wanting to know their history and struggles and work in solidarity for liberation).  This pressure to assimilate is a form of violence.  Sometimes it's physical, sometimes it's not.    

Back to the idea of any language that's not English being a "foreign language" on US soil:  this is backwards.  The idea that everyone that lives or even visits the US should speak English, while US-Americans often feel completely entitled to visit other countries (or certain neighborhoods/restaurants/stores in the US) and expect people to always speak English is really hypocritical.  Unfortunately, it happens all the time.  Let's not keep repeating this arrogant pattern!

Only speaking one language deprives our lives of a lot of richness.  There are concepts that just can't be translated, and from my very much un-fluent Spanish, I can see that much is lost in translation.  And just like there are some concepts that can't be easily translated, there's some info that just isn't translated at all.  There are rad videos without English subtitles.  There are speeches online that don't have translation.  Relying on everything to be translated into English will cause you to miss out on a lot of things you didn't even know you didn't know about!  

Although Spanish, like English, is a colonizer's language that has wiped out or minimized a lot of traditional languages, understanding it can open a lot of doors.  I'm not talking about drunken vacations to Cancun or business trips to Madrid.  I'm talking about connecting with people, learning about the histories and cultures of Latin American cultures, which the US has been very involved with - mostly in very negative, oppressive ways - yet are often not taught about at all in US schools.  I'm talking about learning about medicinal plants, concept of health that are not widely understood in mainstream US culture (like susto and pesar), what the land is like where people are from.

When I've expressed desire to improve my Spanish, oftentimes people recommend language schools in Mexico or Guatemala.  Or local classes.  For a lot of us and for a lot of reasons, traveling outside the US to learn Spanish is not a realistic option.  A lot of us don't have the money to pay for classes, local or faraway.  And language cd's that you can take out from the library, while free, leaves a lot to be desired for those of us whose motivation for learning/improving our Spanish isn't planning business or pleasure trips.  Personally, I'm waiting for some Spanish language resources that are specific to: specific regions of specific countries; agricultural Spanish; Spanish for medicinal plants, herbal remedies, and health; Spanish you're most apt to use in the rural Northeastern US; and Spanish for loved ones.  If anyone knows of such educational resources or is in the process of creating this, please do be in touch!

Here are some resources I've been drawing upon to continue my personal independent study of Spanish:

-Google Translate can be very helpful. SpanishDict too.

-Practice!  Do It!  Work with someone who speaks Spanish?  Have a neighbor from a Spanish-speaking country?  Even if you live in a really white/overwhelmingly-English area (I'm from Maine and live in Vermont), there are probably people in your live that speak Spanish as a native language or who have learned it later in life.  Even if you're nervous and don't want to butcher someone's language, put yourself out there a bit!  And even if you're speaking in English, use the proper Spanish pronunciation of people's names, areas, foods, etc.  If you're not sure, ask!

-Watch movies in Spanish, or ones dubbed in Spanish!

-Watch movies in English with Spanish subtitles!  (This is good for more visual learners and for learning some conversational slang, expressions, etc.) 

-Watch telenovelas!
I like Una Familia Con Suerte, and other tv programs like El Chapulín Colorado and El Chavo del Ocho (check out shows on Youtube). 

-Watch music videos!  A lot have subtitles/lyrics right in the video (try searching for Spanish subtitles/subtítulos en Español), or you can search for them separate from the video.  Or just listen and see what you can pick up.  Current favorites:

    LMFAO - Sexy and I Know It  (Dang, they removed the good good version with
       subtitles, you can check this live version out here or another one here)
    Wisin & Yandel - Estoy Enamorado (make sure you translate the closing words!
      Or read them here.)
    Anything in the whole world by Lila Downs, such as:
         -Palomo Del Comalito
         -La Cumbia del Mole  (currently not available in the US, errrr)
          -Zapata Se Queda
    La Sonora Matancera con Celia Cruz - El Yerbito Moderno (watch this,
    Camila - De Que Me Sirve La Vida 
   La Gorda - Krudas Cubensi

NEW!:  National Day Laborer Organizing Network's Arts and Cultures page contains a number of amazing videos both in English and Spanish.  Be sure to watch to the end!

I'm An Alien by Rebel Diaz
Wake Me Up by Aloe Blacc
La Santa Cecilia - Ice El Hielo

-Check out (free) opportunities in your area!
Is there a free language group that meets at your local library?  Is someone offering one-on-one Spanish tutoring through your local timebank? (If you live in Central Vermont: Montpelier's Kellogg-Hubbard Library hosts a lunch in a foreign language program, with a different language each day of the week from 12-1pm.  The Spanish group meets Wednesdays.  And check out the Onion River Exchange/REACH timebanks.)

-Read familiar books in their Spanish versions! Read Spanish/English bilingual editions!
Know Harry Potter by heart, or Strega Nona?  Check out the children's library, or read an epic novel, whatever your level is!  A Cafecito Story (El Cuento del Cafecito) by Julia Alvarez, the Spanish/English bilingual edition is really great.  You can read in Spanish and then read the same page in English, back and forth.  If you're not yet ready to read books in Spanish, read English-version books written by Latin@ authors and/or Latin@ authors who weave Spanish words into their English.  I highly recommend Julia Alvarez's book Return to Sender, a kids book (great for adults, too) about a friendship between a Vermont farmer's son and migrant farm worker's daughter from Chiapas, Mexico.

-Read poetry in Spanish!
I love to read poetry in Spanish that's been translated into English, or poems in English that have been translated into Spanish, that are printed together side by side.  That way, you can read the poems together and gain insight into poetic images and concepts that are quite different from literal translations.  You can check out Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, Barbara Kingsolver's collection of poetry entitled Another America/ Otra América, with Spanish translations by Rebeca Cartes.

-Read (and listen to) everything in its Spanish version! 
Democracy Now! posts a transcript in Spanish, Democracy Now! en Español.  You can read them online, click on 'Escuche' to listen to the headlines in Spanish, and check out their Democracy Now! en Español page on Facebook.  The back pages of the newspaper of my union, the UE, is written in Spanish.  Read labels for foods (or anything!) in Spanish.

-Have a good dictionary handy (and other word &/or picture resources)!
I've gone through periods of having my Spanish/English dictionary on me constantly, as well as a book on medicinal herbs written in Spanish and a seed catalog in English so that I can communicate with Spanish-speakers to talk about plants we grow in our gardens, plants we use as remedies, etc.  My mom also sent me a great Spanish/English Medical Dictionary by Glenn T. Rogers, which I've found helpful as a community herbalist.

-Check out (free) opportunities online!
Sign up for the Spanish Word of the Day with SpanishDict! has a lot of free online info.  Also, your local library may carry free online Spanish courses such as Mango Languages or Powerspeak Languages.  Change your computer settings to Spanish, use, etc!

-For those with iPhones, check out the SayHi Translate app!

-Write letters! Write emails!
Do you have friends, acquaintances, and allies who speak Spanish?  Push your boundaries and initiate some written communication in Spanish.

-Learn about the history of the places where this language is widely spoken!
Friends have recently recommended Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (or Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina if you're ready for the original Spanish version) by Uruguayan journalist, writer and poet Eduardo Galeano, and published in 1971.  The 25th anniversary edition is available here as an e-book.

  And if a book is good enough to be banned by school district officials hell-bent
  on destroying ethnic studies and anything that questions white supremacist 
  US history that silences the voices of the people, it deserves to be read!   

Despite its great success, Arizona has banned ethnic studies, including Mexican, Native, and
  African American studies.  They've banned any book where "race, ethnicity, and oppression     are central themes."  Here's the list of books they removed from the classrooms of the    
  acclaimed Mexican American ethnic studies program:

     Rethinking Columbus: The next 500 Years by Bill Bigelow
     Occupied America:  A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuna
     500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures edited by Elizabeth Martinez
     Message to AZTLAN by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales
     Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement by Arturo Rosales
     Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
     Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado
     The Tempest by William Shakespeare

For more info on the banning of these books and the ethnic studies programs, check out this debate on Democracy Now!
Check out Librotraficante if you're interested in a project to smuggle contraband books back into Arizona!  Yeah!  Also, check out the Biblioburro: The Donkey Library

-Seek out organizations that are doing work you're passionate about!  Read their pamphlets, booklets, websites, and other writings that they put out.  See what terms they're using to name themselves and the issues they're facing.

-Get Involved!
Being involved in movements for liberation and creating relationships through this is going to sustain your motivation for learning Spanish like nothing else!  Having people that I care about in my life that I want to communicate with (in person, over the phone, on Facebook) fuels my passion to learn Spanish on a daily level.

Have ideas?  Know of good resources?  Please share in the comments below or contact me directly.  Thanks so much!  ¡Cuídate! 


  1. Hi Dana,
    I have been reading your blog for awhile but rarely comment. I decided to pass an award on to you which you can find on my blog today.
    On the topic, I too have known people who are multilingual and yet in the U.S. are marginalized because they speak English with an accent.
    Oftentimes, my friends do actually speak English but choose not to because we are not just mono lingual but our hearing also tends to be singular. An accent takes effort to decipher as well as desire and my friends fel shy under the pressure.

  2. Dear Linda~

    Hello! Thank you so much for commenting (both times) and for my first ever blog award! I'm glad and appreciative to hear that you read, enjoy, and pass along what I've been writing.

    Thanks for sharing about language/accents. I sometimes wonder what our neighborhoods - rural, urban, and in between - would sound like if we were all able to maintain our native languages/ mother tongues/ languages of our ancestors. English would be just one little drop in oceans of words and sounds and concepts... I feel like the intense anger that can be at the root of US Americans expecting everyone to speak English and looking down on people who don't or speak it with an accent is some deep memory and grief for what's been lost. So often it seems easier to blame a scapegoat than to acknowledge cultural loss in our own families/communities, let alone global cultural destruction.

    Good luck with your Spilanthes harvest this season, if you're growing some!

    Take care,

  3. Your welcome Dana. I didn't plant spilanthes. I just didn't feel it if you know what I mean? Not this year. Oddly I grew a few herbs last year spontaneously that I ended up needing this year physically so something does guide me apparently.

    I lived until recently in such neighborhood in Chicago and I loved it very much. I chose to live there because of the multicultural aspect and its what I am used to. Its how I grew up. I wanted my children to experience it despite the fact that it was also a poverty stricken area and at the time, we were not poor. We moved since then to a rural area that is very homogenous and though I need the garden, the organic earth, the quiet, I am grateful for the memories of my past. People do not know what they are missing. I do try to appreciate the more subtle layers of the all white world-it can be present but its harder to discern.
    Anyhow, I am looking forward to learning more from you about anything you decide to write about. Thanks very much for this blog.