Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Relocating Means Learning New Language, Overcoming Old Prejudices

Dear Tazi:

A few months ago I accepted a job transfer to Miami, thinking the change of scenery (and escape from an upstate New York winter) would be a nice change of pace. The one thing I forgot to count on is the fact that Miami is no longer a part of the United States, at least it seems that way.  With more people speaking Spanish than English, I feel like I have moved to Cuba.  I believe that in America we should speak English, but my beliefs are not going to help me get by in this new city where I do not know anybody and do not speak the predominant language.  I feel like an immigrant in my own country, and am very, very frustrated.

I am trying very hard to overcome my anger at those who have moved here to America - legally or illegally - and have not learned English, but it is hard.  Why should I have to learn Spanish when the official language of America is English?  Why shouldn't people who speak Spanish have to learn English?  I am in my forties, and learning a new language is not easy at my age.

People have mentioned that I try Rosetta Stone, but that program is very expensive and I am not sure how I would do in a self-guided program.  I do not have time to take a class at the community college, and I really need to learn at least conversational Spanish to get around this city.  In past columns, you have mentioned that your Mommie is learning Spanish.  Can you tell me any of her secrets for learning this new language?  Or is she failing as badly as I am at trying to learn Spanish?


No Habla Español 

Dear No Habla Español:

First let me state for the record that, due to my bearing the onus of an inordinate amount of neglect, my Mommie is doing very well in her attempts to learn Spanish!  Mi mamá trabaja mucho! Before I share some of her tips for learning a new language - I have not decided if you are worthy of them yet - I would like to address the attitude I sense coming from your letter.

To start, you are incorrect in stating that English is the "official language" of the United States.  The U.S. has no official language; English is simply the most commonly spoken one and the most agreed upon for government use as it is the traditionally used language within our borders.  There are those who argue that America should pass legislation declaring English as our official language, but until that happens your argument is on shaky ground.

There are different areas in America where the predominant culture dictates the language most spoken - a good example of this would be among the Amish, who speak a German dialect among themselves and within their communities.  This does not mean that they cannot speak English (they can, and they do when the occasion calls for it), which brings me to another point: you assume that simply because someone is speaking Spanish that they are unable to speak English; this is not always correct.  Many immigrants and first generation Americans are bi-lingual and even poly-lingual, putting the language skills of the native born to shame.

You mention that you are in your forties and that learning a new language at your age is hard.  Many who immigrate to America come here not as children, but as adults and experience the same difficulty learning English that you are experiencing learning Spanish.  It is for this reason that Spanish speaking communities form, eliminating the need to learn English in order to go about one's day to day business.  Again, this is not to say that nobody in those communities speaks English; I suggest you work to find businesses that are bilingual in English-Spanish and patron them while you work to improve your Spanish.  Who knows?  The business owners may even assist you with your Spanish while you are in their stores.

You are right to feel like an immigrant in your own country, because technically you have immigrated to a new community.  Even if that community spoke English, it would be a very different form of English than what you speak in upstate New York; you would have to learn how to interpret the local verbiage and work through the differences in your accents in order to make yourself understood and to understand others.

Being immersed in a new language is actually the best way to learn it - after all, it is how you learned your first language.  The next time you find yourself lost in the world of a new language, try to put aside your anger, fear, and panic and truly listen to what is being said.  Many Spanish words are part of the English language, and many Spanish words sound similar to English words; try to put these words into the context of the situation.  Do not be afraid to tell people that you do not speak Spanish, and ask them to speak slowly (habla despacio, por favor!).  Use as many physical props as possible to get your message across, and listen to the words used in response.  This is a great way to increase your vocabulary.  In time, as your vocabulary increases, your grammar will also improve.

Now, as for how Mommie is managing to do so well in her Spanish class: She first worked on building her vocabulary.  Her Spanish textbook keeps words in groups - physical traits, academic topics, rooms in the house, etc.  She learns each group in turn, and then uses them when speaking to me.  Over the past few months I have learned that I come la comida para gatos (eat cat food); duerme sobre una manta (sleep on a blanket) and that I can be a dolar en el culo! (pain in the...HEY!!!  That is not nice!).

Once you learn some vocabulary, you can learn how to conjugate each verb.  A book like Spanish for Dummies can be very helpful, as can a Spanish to English dictionary, many of which are free online.  The key to retaining what you learn is to practice every day.  Mommie talks to me in Spanish, and reviews the stuff that is giving her trouble right before she goes to bed; while sleeping, her brain untangles the problem and things generally make sense in the morning.

I realize that you say you do not have the time to take a class, but this really is the best way to learn a new language if immersion is not working for you.  Many colleges offer Spanish classes online, so you  do not have to worry about making it to a set class time each week - just about completing the assignments and practicing, practicing, practicing!!!  Perfection will not come overnight, but nobody is expecting that of you.  The fact that you are making an effort will be noticed, and go a long way towards helping you gain acceptance in your new community.


Ask Tazi! is ghostwritten by a human with a Bachelors of Arts in Communications. Tazi-Kat is not really a talking feline.

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