Reflecting on the Fabulosity of my Spanish this Hispanic Heritage Month
I adore Spanish. I don’t just love its orthographic transparency (what you see is what you get) in the classroom. As a language, I love its rhythm, its unabashed-ness, its ability to communicate with one word what it takes 5 words to communicate in English just by adding on more parts (affixes) because of its syntactical efficiency. I revere the classics, originally written in Spanish, that are filled with grammatically correct sentences that go on for 10 lines or what sometimes seems like for days. I love its history, the way my voice is different each time I use it, and how my heart feels full each time I hear a Salsa or bachata song from my youth. Despite this fascination, the sad the truth is that I didn’t always even like my Spanish. Yes, not all Spanish, my Spanish.
How can that be? A lover of language – of Spanish in particular – not liking their mother tongue. It is an answer that I think all dual language educators and programs should know. I am passionate about building successful dual language programs. In part, it stems from the of the need for equal status of both program languages. Another part, is dual language’s unique position to critically question the extent to which we all practice that ideal of linguistic equity for both and within each program language in our day to day actions. My tumultuous relationship with my Spanish stems from this particular disconnect between believing in linguistic equity and acting in ways that give equal status to Spanish like mine in palpable ways.
My Spanish is a fabulous mix of the gestures, symbols, sounds, accents, and words I grew up hearing, knowing, and using. These things came together to help me connect to other Spanish-speakers (mostly other Puerto Ricans and Dominicans early in my life) and to share my thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and who I was. My mother es de Puerto Rico and my father es de la República Dominicana. The words I know and use are just as rooted in this culture and heritage as the gestures and accent that are undeniably caribeño.
Because I lived en Santo Domingo and my parents are who they are, I grew up knowing and using words like: boricua, limoncillo, trigueño, vaina, pasteles, parranda, and china. While some people don’t recognize vaina as a word, there are lots of things that are worthy of being called vaina. But one of my favorite words is ñangotao. Ñangotao – the state of being beaten down so many times that there is no more fight left to get back up. To lose one’s will and submit to one’s condition or rule. Ñangotao, a word used often to describe the borinquen fight throughout history to live independently and to preserve the beauty of the island’s land and power of its people to overcome any condition. Ñangotao – how I feel when my beautiful lexicon of palabras caribeñas are called wrong. Ñangotao – the effect of belittling and admonishing the words students call their own so that these words have no more fight left to get back up because they might be found in the dictionary.
The words students come to school with provide rich insights into who they are and what they know, and so will always need a place within our schools. And this is where dual-language educators and leaders can choose to act in ways that truly reflect the equal status of even the Spanish language. Celebrating the rich tapestry of dialectal and regional nuances that Spanish has is a choice. When we choose to celebrate the wide array of words that students bring to the classroom to be, to make meaning, to connect, and to communicate what they know and have learned, it makes a space for much more authentic learning through much stronger social connections and academic interactions. Rather than linguistically suppress and oppress some students’ español, dual-language educators and leaders can make the choice and commitment to celebrate how Spanish-speakers around the world use Spanish to communicate their thoughts, share their knowledge and beliefs, convey their emotions, and reveal or conceal who they are.
This can be done using words as teachable moments used for the purpose of building word consciousness (an essential building block of vocabulary instruction), metalinguistic awareness, and identity affirmation. It allows students to add to the collection of words that they know and are able to use, rather than correcting words that have been deemed wrong. Esta vaina de words being wrong wreaks of linguistic superiority and I have learned that I have no place for it in my heart or in the practices that I will support. I know for many Latinos and Hispanics, correcting words like nursa, pos, and parquear is not about linguistic oppression, but about cultural preservation of the language without it being ‘tainted’. For others, we may judge or miss the value in words like parquear and nursa because they are not academic and so beneath an academic space. In the end, choosing to label certain words as right or wrong because they are not in the dictionary will create the very barriers or bridges that hinder or aid students’ ability to communicate their thoughts, knowledge, beliefs, convey their emotions, and reveal or conceal who they are. It is the choice between being dual-language fabulous or engaging in linguistic and cultural depletion while being dual-language-ish.
This Hispanic Heritage let’s recommit to using some of the additive strategies below (not just this month, but each and every day of the year):
- use interactive multilingual word walls
- using diverse, authentic, and originally-written texts in Spanish
- ask students about their word choices in their writing
- use language objectives to identify specific terms that students need to add to their lexicon to access read alouds, text books, and specific lessons
So whether your students come with librería and add biblioteca and library, or come with zafacón and add basurero and garbage can, let’s celebrate the fabulosity of all the words that students bring as part of who they are. After all, the two are inseparable. In the end, I’m grateful to have learned that the word bicho is used for insect in some places in the world, but I’ll never teach my children to say it. Why? ¡Porque soy Dominicana y Boricua, pa’ que lo sepa!