How do you lose a language? That’s a question that keeps me up at night. I grew up in a border town in Texas with a father who was born and raised in Mexico and a mother who was born into a Hispanic family that primarily spoke Spanish. My first trip to Mexico happened at one week old. I spent so much time in the presence of those who spoke beautiful Spanish that I can close my eyes and hear the lilt of voices over the sound of children’s laughter. I’m transported back to all those family celebrations where the music was loud but the voices even louder, stories were shared, and sharp commands were given when someone wouldn’t share a toy.
The family members and nannies who watched over me while my parents worked only spoke Spanish to my sister and me. I mimicked their words, listened to the stories read to me, and enjoyed the world I was a part of. As I grew closer to school age, my mother hoped that I would flunk an exam given to incoming Kinder kids in our school district. Why? Because if I failed the English exam, that meant I got into school early and could stay the entire day versus half a day. She was elated when informed that I did not pass the test and would be starting early with the other children whose Spanish was better than English.
Fast forward to present me, I stumble over the slight pronunciation. I turn red and get flustered when asked to reply in Spanish. I speak to my family primarily in English through Facebook or other social media platforms and hope that Google translates it well enough to get my point across. I can still understand the majority of conversations I overhear my mother and father have, and I can read in Spanish, but that’s about it.
How did this happen? How did I go from being so fluent in Spanish to barely being able to remember how to translate the word toy?
Honestly, it was partially the school systems in the US and the pressure to assimilate. The expectation once I was in school was to learn English, even though many of my teachers also knew Spanish simply because of the town we lived in. Now that I was in school, the expectations at home also shifted.
My parents would still speak to one another in Spanish, but they started speaking to my sister and me primarily in English. My amazing father, who learned to read in English when he was younger so he could understand the school books he needed for his Engineering degree, was also striving to perfect his English. I would overhear my mother help him with pronunciation, translations, and understanding slang. As I grew, I would also offer corrections, explain nuances, and became proud as he continued to improve.
My parents could have set firm guidelines that they were only to be spoken to in Spanish, or that only Spanish was to be spoken in our home, but they wanted to ensure that we learned and did our best at school, so they didn’t. While I haven’t directly asked them why I’m going to assume that they hoped that we would be able to focus on the one language we would need to get through schooling and into college.
To be fair, it worked. My sister, brother, and I have all made it through high school with good marks and went to college, but now I have regrets. I regret not spending more time trying to relearn my native tongue before having kids of my own.
I read to my girls in Spanish, play music for them that I listened to growing up, and ask my mother and father to speak to them in Spanish. But it’s not the same as having heard two languages since birth. It’s not the same as being immersed in the culture by visiting so often that you felt it was a second home. I had cousins that I could speak with, learn from, and spend time with. My girls have their beautiful cousin who lives too far for us to visit frequently.
I’m trying to do my due diligence by explaining to them how important it is to learn Spanish, to have them understand that Grandpa and Grandma have an extra special trick of loving them with beautiful and new words. I try to explain to them that while they only have two Yayas (what they call Aunt), I have many Yayas and Uncles in two different countries. Then I have to explain the concept of country to them and explain that while they’ve been born in one and live in one, mama has lived in two.
It saddens me to think that my daughters don’t have the same experiences I did growing up, but I’m going to work hard to ensure that they continue the beautiful relationship I’ve had with a language I need to find once again.