It’s never too late to be bilingual

By Helena Rodriguez

Habla español?
Yo no espeako espanish, but as for Spanglish – a mixture of Spanish and English – si, yo espeako most of that.
After a lifetime of speaking broken Spanish, slang and Spanglish, I’m finally on the road to learning Spanish once and for all. There have been all kinds of excuses and blame assigned over the years. But enough. At age 36, I’ve decided to become a child all over again and learn to speak Spanish from scratch.
This summer I’m taking Spanish 101 at Eastern New Mexico University. For someone like me — who knows how to roll my r’s, who knows the lyrics to many Selena and Tigrillos’ songs and who knows enough slang to chase away a dirty old man — you’d think it’d be as simple as uno, dos, tres.
Wrong!
Learning a language is challenging, especially if you want to learn it right, and it’s even more challenging when you’re older. It would have been much easier for me to learn Spanish as a child, but that didn’t happen. Grandma Chaya grew up and labored in the hot fields of South Texas and had a hard life. So did Dad. She told my parents to teach my four sisters and I English first and then Spanish later so we wouldn’t experience the obstacles she did. And I have had a much easier life.
On the flip side, however, I never learned Spanish. In some ways not knowing Spanish while growing up may have kept me out of trouble. As a teenager, I sometimes didn’t understand what guys were trying to tell me.
They thought I was acting like I didn’t know Spanish. Why would I do that? At the time, I would have loved to have known what they were saying. As I look back now, I sigh in relief for really not knowing Spanish on certain occasions.
In the long run, however, not knowing Spanish has been a handicap. I have missed out on intimate conversations I could have had with my abuelita and have even been passed over for some good jobs for not being fluent in Spanish.
I wish my parents would have taught us Spanish. It has been hard at times not knowing Spanish. Mom and Dad would switch to Spanish mode when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying, but then they’d turn around on other occasions and chastise us for not speaking Spanish, like when we were introduced to tios and tias who only spoke Spanish.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, politicos tried to sell America on “English Only” legislation, making it illegal to speak other languages in public. Not only was it deemed discriminatory, it was shallow thinking, particularly when Census figures were released a few years ago showing Hispanics are the largest U.S. minority.
Between now and November, expect to hear many politicos, like Señor Bush and Señor Kerry, rolling their r’s. It makes political sense. But it also makes economic sense and it’s just plain common sense.
The world is getting smaller and multilingualism will continue to become even more important. Right now, I bet the FBI can’t find Arabic speakers fast enough.
We norteamericanos may be the world power, but our world isn’t a vacuum. If we are to hold our position, we’re going to have to know how to relate to other people, and that means knowing how to walk their walk and talk their talk.
Comprendes? We need to understand their culture.
Spanish 101 will be followed by Spanish 102 in the spring and then perhaps a total immersion program in Mexico.
By this time next summer, I hope my daughter Laura and I are packing to go to the Southern tip of Mexico, to Merida, where we hope to swim with the dolphins, visit ancient Aztec ruins and, oh yeah, learn to hablar en español!
Laura is taking Spanish this fall at Portales High School and I’ve picked up a little español already. It’s stuff I may have known before, but feel more confident now saying, like “Tenga un buen fin de semana!” (Have a good weekend). See you again next Friday on this same page. In the words of The Terminator, (yes, he’s bilingual, too), “Hasta la vista, baby!”

Helena Rodriguez is a columnist for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. She can be reached at
helena_rodriguez@link.freedom.com