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Speaking in Tongues

Learning a language is like making a mosaic — one word, one stone at a time.


In Deming, so many jobs require bilingual employees that some Anglos resent it. It's understandable that they complain. Learning a foreign language takes lots of time and work and sheer doggedness, and most adults are struggling too much with family and job issues to bother with things like that.

This makes sense. But sometimes the reluctance to learn Spanish has a real "retro" flavor to it. I've heard some Anglos in Deming use a phrase I'd never heard before when they talk about Spanish. They say, "I just want to learn enough to work 'em."

I may be being a little oversensitive, but my offend-o-meter goes shooting up immediately to about 10. To me it's always sounded as if the people were talking about cattle. And that really is not too far from how a few Anglos think of Mexicans, from what I've seen.

This attitude is something that's kind of hard for me to understand, because although I don't have a special talent for picking up languages quickly, it's something I love doing.

I don't mind sitting with a book and a dictionary and looking up word after word after word. The words are like little chips of stone or glass that you collect and arrange until a beautiful mosaic pattern emerges. I learned the basic structure and grammar of Spanish pretty early on, but the vast vocabulary seems almost bottomless to me still. So I'm still picking up stone after stone.

Individual languages are something like the collective works of a single composer. You recognize what language someone is speaking (Zulu or Danish) the way you recognize the works of a composer or musician like Prokofiev or John Mellenkamp or Juan Gabriel. There's a preference for certain sounds and sound patterns, particular rhythms, textures and ways of turning a phrase, and a tendency toward certain tonalities.

The beauty of Spanish, in my opinion, lies in its simplicity. There are only five vowels and not as many consonant clusters as English. So the language builds its meaning structures through piling up block after block of square, simple syllables, as in the Latin it's derived from. Spanish is plain and compact.

Pablo Neruda is the poet who to me captures most the genius and beauty of the Spanish language. His poetry plays on its essential simplicity, and recasts the language so that it seems to spring out of Latin American soil, a bit scruffier and saltier and more opaque than the language of Spain.

One of the most appealing things about Spanish is the way it is shot through with thousands of Arabic words left over from the long Islamic occupation from 711 to 1492. The sere, spontaneous grace of these words will always bear witness to their desert origin. From everyday words such as rincon (corner) and loco (crazy) and the simple, passionate afan> (zeal) to the many words relating to math (algebra) and agriculture (acequia), obscure plant names, and words relating to politics and administration — albala (document) — the large number of words shows how intimately Arabic culture was connected to everyday Spanish life.

I majored in linguistics in college, because it was "interesting," and I've written poetry since I was 12. So the warp and woof in the patterns languages weave always seem interesting and beautiful to me, full of subtle colors and glimmers of light and shadow.

But to agricultural workers with only, say, two years of school in Mexico, learning English is something quite different. It seems like a wall or a cliff that's almost impossible to scale. They hardly know any Americans to talk to, they often feel insecure in a classroom, and the sounds of English do not even match the way the language is spelled. My friend Amalia took classes for a while but, she says with a smile, "No pega" (it doesn't stick).


I would tell anyone who wanted to learn either English or Spanish that they should do it. It's an adventure. When I first started getting conversational in Spanish during the 1980s in Guatemala, a new world opened up to me. The light from most of a continent poured in on me. To a Spanish-speaker learning English, it translates into job opportunities, too, of course.

The process of learning Spanish has been very slow for me. Every time I can understand people better, it's as if a veil falls away, and I can see the world a little more clearly. But then it seems that for every time I take steps forward, I find myself in a situation where I can't understand someone who's talking fast and excitedly, and am humbled again. A language won't let you get too cocky.

But fortunately Spanish speakers usually tell you how well you speak their language. In the early 1980s I went to Colombia and arrived at the house where we'd be staying. I clearly remember the kind woman who said, touching my arm that was hanging out the car window, "Habla muy bien" (She speaks well) — when I honestly didn't have more than about 20 words in my vocabulary. This universal all-comforting Hispanic woman is, luckily, to be found almost everywhere, at least among the poor.

The adventure for me comes from being able to reach across cultures and classes to people I could never get to know otherwise. Not only can I talk to native Spanish speakers, but to the speakers of indigenous languages to whom Spanish is a second language.

It's a kick to be able to talk to Marcelina, the Tarahumara woman who sits outside the Pink Store in Palomas. She tells me she'd been away because she had been planting at her home in the Barranca de Cobre. Not much rain fell this year, so she decided to come back to the border to sell her bracelets and necklaces.

She said she'd planted only beans and corn. These Indians hold their culture so tightly to them that this is about all they ever plant. I can drive half a mile from my house and talk with someone from one of the most true-to-the-original cultures in the hemisphere, and one of the poorest.

I started this column talking about some of the most retrograde thinking in Deming, but I should mention how some things are changing. The Martin Elementary School had a successful dual-language program where all students take both English and Spanish classes, and I've been told a lot of Anglos, including farmer families, wanted their kids in this program. It sounds as if sensibleness is prevailing over bigotry, at least in this patch of the border region.

Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.


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