Growing up in India, my ambition was to learn French, the language of the intellectuals. It seemed rather a chic thing to do. Marathi translations of Emile Zola had revealed to me a world so fascinating that I wanted to read the originals. Besides, my father’s stories of Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean, who had gone to prison for stealing a mere loaf of bread, had spoken to me of my own country, where beggars sat under railway bridges for generations while wedding parties unashamedly marched past, displaying kilos of gold.
After I came to the U.S., I abandoned French, but never considered Spanish in its place; perhaps because it seemed the language of the working class. Until I went to Mexico and was treated as a local. It was then that I decided to learn Spanish and fake being a Latina. Little did I know that it would open up a world of which I had hardly been aware.
It seemed strange to me that even though the Spanish were the first Europeans to settle in the U.S. in large numbers, no footprints remained of their culture but for place names.
It wasn’t until I began to conjugate Spanish verbs, to coin adjectives by simply adding “mente” to an English word, and to identify the correct cognada–a word that sounds like an English word but may or may not have the same meaning–that I began to think of the civilizations flourishing south of the border.
I soon discovered that interest in Spanish was on an exponential rise, perhaps because other people had reached the same conclusion I had made: there is no better way to expand your knowledge of the world than to become multi-lingual.
At a fiesta the other day with my Spanish-speaking group, I said to el jefe–the chief–”I am not really a party-person, you know, but I enjoy these fiestas.”
He agreed. Parties in English, he said, were boring, but somehow in Spanish they became interesting.
Why was it so, I wondered. Was it because we were forced to exert all our intellectual resources as we struggled to speak another language? Was it because, as we spoke Spanish, we acquired the passionate character of its native speakers, exhibiting warmth, intimacy, hospitality, and charm that we could never display in our cold Americanesque? Was it because, speaking in Spanish, we inevitably spoke of Latin American literature, music, film, politics, and geography? Was it because the very act of speaking another’s tongue forced us to stand in the other person’s shoes and view how the world looked from that vantage point?
I suppose the answer is all of the above, but I think the last reason is responsible for making so many people want to learn Spanish today. It is as if by the very act of speaking a language of another country, Americans are able to transcend boundaries, to think of the world in less parochial terms, to contemplate being deprived of basic necessities of life like food and water, to imagine how corporate America is destroying someone else’s rainforests, to view the world from the perspective of a Nicaraguan farmer or a Bolivian mechanic.
Perhaps the desire to speak in another language also has something to do with the fact that American national self-esteem is now at an all-time low.
People no longer seem to feel proud of this nation. Instead, they dream of migrating to Bangalore, or Bali, or Belize.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the English language mainstream media in the U.S. has not told the average American the truth about the Iraq war, or the billions that have been stolen in its cause, or the biographies of people detained in GuantÃ¡namo in its name.
Listening to Spanish language radio has been a revelation to me. If they are not talking about the indocumentados, they are trying to sell mortgages, making me wonder if the current Wall Street crisis is not a result of unscrupulous financial institutions selling sub-prime loans to desperate people who do not have the legitimacy for a regular mortgage.
Recently, I have come across Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Iranians, and a whole host of other ethnic groups trying to learn Spanish. That is not so surprising, I suppose, when you consider that these people are already bilingual.
Learning to speak Spanish for many white Americans, on the other hand, is like seeing the world for the first time. Let’s face it. Most Americans are monolingual. This makes their perceptions of the rest of the world, which happens to be multi-lingual, rather lop-sided.
It has been my experience that cohabiting with speakers of other languages forces us to acknowledge and accept other cultures. At my university in India, there was an ethnic hodge-podge of Parsis, Muslims, Jains, Hindus, and various other sub-groups. Even in a city like Nagpur, which could not be called a metropolitan center by any stretch of the imagination, I had in my class speakers of so many other languages that I was forced to converse in Hindi or English, neither of which were my native tongue.
That very act of acknowledging someone else’s culture was an act of opening up, of becoming universal and multi-cultural, of crawling out of one’s cocoon, an experience most Americans have never had.
American literature, like American film, has been formulaic, catering to rules out of the Iowa school that dictate that a trivial incident should lead to a major change in a character.
Latin American and Spanish literature, on the other hand, defies all rules, producing works of originality and intensity. If Americans were exposed to works like that of Roberto BolaÃ±o on a regular basis, I think they would see literature as panoramic, life changing, epic, and real.
So why not end this gringo monopoly on culture and expand our horizons to include our closest neighbors?
And what better way to do this than to start speaking Spanish?