Book notice: Latinos Describe “How I L earned English” in New Essay Collection

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Aug 28 14:39:52 UTC 2007

New West Book Review
Latinos Describe "How I Learned English" in New Essay Collection
By Jenny Shank, 8-27-07

How I Learned English: 55 Accomplished Latinos Recall Lessons in
Language and Life
Ed. Tom Miller
National Geographic Books
266 pages, $16.95

When I was six years old, I began taking a bus to my assigned public
elementary school west of Mile High Stadium, about a thirty-minute
ride away from my southeast Denver home.  At school I encountered an
entirely different world from that of my neighborhood: many of my
classmates were the children of immigrants, and while classes were
taught in English, the school encouraged expressions of different
cultures and the use of Spanish language.

On one wall was a mural of an image taken from the Mexican flag, an
eagle with a snake in its beak, perched on a cactus. If you behaved
especially well, the teacher might choose you to wear the "Ayudante"
jean jacket for the week, and give you some tickets that could be
exchanged for marvelous junk at the Cinco de Mayo carnival.  I don't
remember a time before I knew the story of La Llorona, which I must
have heard the Mexican-American kids telling on the playground.  So it
was with great interest that I read How I Learned English, a new
anthology edited by Tom Miller featuring 55 short essays by Latinos
who made the same journey my classmates did, from the Spanish-speaking
world into the English-speaking world.

PBS NewsHour regular Ray Suarez writes in his introduction that
"learning a language begins a passage to another way of seeing the
world and speaking it into existence." Some of the writers struggled
to learn English, while others arrived in the United States as
children and soaked the language up, perhaps losing their previous
fluency in Spanish in the process, as novelist Francisco Goldman did.
(He once listened to a tape recording of himself as a child, and
writes, "It was strange to be a college student, listening to your
four-year-old self do something that you couldn't do anymore: speak
fluent Spanish.")

Changing a language can change one's worldview or even one's
personality, as University of Michigan anthropology professor Ruth
Behar writes: "They tell me I was a nonstop talker, una cotorrita.
But after we arrived in the United States I became shy, silent,
sullen.  I have no memory of myself as a little girl speaking Spanish
in Cuba." I have observed the personality changes that using different
languages can bring first hand--my husband was born in New York to
French parents, and learned English as a second language, in part from
Sesame Street.  When he speaks in French, he is typically more of a
social papillon than he is when he speaks in English.

Most of the writers in this collection entered the American
educational system before the Chicano rights movement of the '60s and
'70s brought about changes that welcomed multiculturalism (like that
mural on my elementary school's wall), and so several writers report
that a teacher asked their parents to speak in English at home to
promote the children's fluency.

This is what happened to the incisive essayist Richard Rodriguez in
the excerpt included from his book Hunger of Memory.  "As a socially
disadvantaged child," he writes, "I considered Spanish to be a private
language.  What I needed to learn in school was that I had the
right--and the obligation--to speak the public language of los
gringos." Rodriguez was shy and mumbled in class until the day when
three nuns from the school visited his family's house and suggested
they practice English at home.  His parents declared the nuns'
suggestion a rule, and Rodriguez's English flourished, though not
without regret for the loss of his family's private Spanish world.
"The spell was broken," he writes.

Even when immersed in the English language, it's not easy to learn all
of the idioms and rules of English, as Richard Lederer and Josh White
Jr. note in their piece, "English Is Cuh-ray-zee." "If the teacher
taught," they write, "why isn't it true that a preacher praught?" "How
can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same/ When a wise man and a
wise guy are very different?" In several of the essays, the writers
remember language mistakes they made that caused great confusion.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa writes that he learned English "the hard way--that
is, wrenching my guts out with books, tapes, video courses, and that
irreplaceable method, the humiliation of real-life trial and error."
He learned Spanish from his Peruvian parents, then picked up French
before he began to study English at a boarding school in Britain.
While there, he had an English girlfriend, and he recounts this sad
and funny incident:

"After not seeing her for a few weeks, I wanted to tell her that I
missed her.  When I said to her, 'I regret you,' anglicizing the
French word for missing someone, she looked at me in horror and spat
out something like: 'You are not a gentleman.' We never saw each other
again." Although many of the writers had fun learning English through
television, movies, and music (as did Gigi Anders, who watched Captain
Kangaroo and The Lucy Show, and congressman José Serrano, who listened
to Frank Sinatra records), a common theme is how hard one must work to
master and maintain a language.  Miami Herald journalist Enrique
Fernández taught college Spanish at one point, and writes, "From that
experience I found out that a foreign language can be learned and that
some people can learn it, while others can't no matter how hard they

Many writers note that English is a language that opens the world to
them, and the image of the stubborn immigrant who doesn't want to
learn English is belied by the stories in this book.  Ray Suarez
writes about Samuel Huffington's Foreign Policy essay, "Jose, Can You
See?" in which "he peers into the future and sees native-born English
speakers as an embattled minority." Suarez observes that Huffington
"looks at Latino American and totally misses the night school classes"
and "the endless hours of ads for English-language home study kits."

It would be interesting if How I Learned English were to be updated
twenty years from now with stories from younger bilinguals, because
while many writers in this collection were encouraged to cast off
their old language, today there is more interest in keeping multiple
languages alive.  What will the English language become as more
Spanish speakers learn it and more Latinos join the U.S. population?
Judging from the determination of the essayists in How I Learned
English, English will continue to be the potent global language that
it is today, though Spanglish might become an important secondary
tongue as American English continues to fold in the words of the
native languages of its population.  I, for one, don't see anything
ominous in this potential development.  That's what living languages
do: they change.

[End of article]
Comment By Craig Moore, 8-27-07
Language is more than just words. It is the organization of those
words which both produce and communicate thought. We English speaking
types generally follow the Subject - Verb - Object of the Verb
approach. Many languages follow a much more verbose, softer, indirect
approach and avoid the declarative sentences. Language tends to be at
the very center of defining culture and how a particular society
operates. Language tends to be the glue that binds a people and its
culture together by providing not only a common set of communication
sounds but a pattern of expression that reflects and reinforces that

Comment By Jenny Shank, 8-27-07

I think many of the writers in the collection would agree with you,
Craig. Ray Suarez's quote above succinctly expresses the cultural
implications of learning a language: "learning a language begins a
passage to another way of seeing the world and speaking it into
existence." I think people who speak who speak different languages do
see the world differently, and this is in part why the writers in this
collection have worked so hard to learn English, and mastery of the
language contributed to their becoming successful participants in
American culture, politics, and business.

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