$50 words on a $5 budget — or, on language

[language & happy] indexSo I started writing about my experience with language a while back. Per usual, this process began on a random notepad and scrap pieces of paper, which have since been misplaced after months of not returning to the topic. Recent reflections, readings, and reactions to conversations brought back those thoughts…though I can’t say the Same for whatever paper they started on (trust me, I looked).

So language, huh?
Yup, well I kinda suck at it. Let’s explore. (fair warning, this will probably be a nice scenic route exploration. mostly because i really feel it needs…I need it. also mostly, because I feel like it…and let’s face it, I do what I want. good thoughts are coming, people friends, so it’ll be worth the read (i hope)).

I always say Spanish was my first language because, well, it was. Short, uncomplicated version of the story: my parents immigrated from Mexico, started hustling early in life in the form of multiple jobs, worked hard, fell in love, married, and started a family in Chicago. The Spanish spoken at home was Spanish from el rancho, from the pueblos my parents came from. Through the years, I learned English, eventually having it become my dominant language. My conversational Spanish remained intact as I moved to Texas, mixing and blending and shifting into an amalgamation of words that drew from both languages and the multitude of cultures that now made up my identity.

Through my years of being introduced to other cultures (and socioeconomic classes) by way of schooling and traveling and interactions, I learned that my level of Spanish was…well, basic. I still don’t know how else to describe it. I know my parents know the language. I’m pretty confident that I know the language. but our conversations were basic. We spoke about essential things like cooking and cleaning and working hard, about expectations and roles and how to take care of others and family. We didn’t discuss finances or politics or public policies pr education…hell, we didn’t really discuss anything (but that’s obviously an unrelated sidenote that I’ll leave for another time). The point is that I never learned that level of the language, which was fine until I met others who did. And then it wasn’t so fine.

The thing was, I fell in love with words pretty early on but had no one to engage in conversations with or practice or learn. So I read. and I wrote. and I thought. [picture Little Clouds, sitting in whatever space of solitude she could find in a Mexican household, writing her little heart away, expressing thoughts on “love” and sadness in the form of poetry, reading Shakespeare, spending hours in libraries…pretty darn cute if you ask me].

Still, there was no stimulation or challenge in the form of interaction with others. I’m not blaming anyone on my lack of confidence in my language abilities. I could have done a lot to fill in the gaps. Lots of people do. I could have read the dictionary in English and Spanish had I thought far enough ahead. Or immersed myself in each of the languages separately. Or done a crap-ton of other things to feel more confident. but I didn’t. What I did do was attempt to learn as best I knew how. Mostly this was through attempting to soak up the words I heard others use and trying to use them myself. There were some major fails along the way. Like the time I (over) used the thesaurus on a paper in high school and was accused of plagiarism because those didn’t sound like “my” words. Or the time I attempted to use the word “cognizant” in a paper in grad school, having heard it used in conversation and applying it correctly mind you…buuut I kind of might have written a completely different word that at the time seemed to sound alike (the word I wrote escapes me now that I know the actual word. …but I know I still have that paper somewhere, with my professor’s polite correction and smiley face). Point is my English is similar to my Spanish. I know the basics. and I could improve were I more committed. [My passion for learning and my innate love of laziness are at constant odds with each other. The struggle is real.]

Through years of being corrected by others and overhearing conversation of “right” and “wrong” ways of speaking, my confidence in my language skills dropped, both English and Spanish, and so did my confidence in myself. I turned inward toward my thoughts and outward on scrap pieces of paper, where I was free to use words that couldn’t be judged by others. I was free to switch between the languages that built me, without shame or guilt or worry if I was saying it the “right” way.

“Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?” ― Gloria E. Anzaldúa

I’m not entirely sure of the point of this post. Maybe it was spurred by my recent interactions with people I interviewed alongside, people who felt like they had to be “on” (which is very understandable considering the stress and setting and situation), faking it, presenting a false persona, trying to one-up the others by use of their fancy language and exaggerated expressions. Maybe it’s because I felt the same way feel the same way. When I really stop to think about it, I feel like a fraud, using words that are beyond me. Maybe that’s why I think more than I speak. If I speak too much, people might figure out that I actually have no idea what I’m saying. Or other palabras will leak out when they shouldn’t, cuando otros me dicen que no esta bien. Writing is easier. The words flow from my fingertips and not from my mouth. They escape me as quickly as they come, which decreases the chances that something ridiculous or “wrong” will come out. …although, I’m sure that you, as a loyal reader of this fabulous blog, have proof of plenty of ridiculousness coming out, which I won’t argue against. And, perhaps more importantly, I’m fine with that.


I guess the concluding thought regarding language and happy is that I’m starting to less concerned with what others think of my language because, well, it’s mine dammit. (By “staring to” I mean like at this very moment as I wrote and reflected on my words and how they came to be. Thanks again, people friends, for being a part of another moment of insight). Who would’ve thought decreasing shame correlated a bit with increasing happiness?

I’m not saying I am going to stop attempting to learn or improve or hope to someday sound more eloquent when I speak. That’s still happening fo’ sho (…although laziness is definitely beating out passion for learning as of late). Till then, as the title aptly implies, I’m going to continue to make my money stretch..but maybe only times when I feel it’s needed instead of feeling that it’s needed all the time.

“Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue – my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.” ― Gloria E. Anzaldúa


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