The greatest stimuli of my life have come from the interaction with other languages.
Languages got me out of my cultural cocoon. They are the first thing that comes to my mind when someone asks me about what do you like the most. They are connectors.
And if I had to put into words the impact and meaning they have had in my life I may say it like this:
Spanish is my mother and my identity, english is my little brother, french was my teenage mentor and italian is my teacher.
I was born and raised in northern Mexico, in a small city called Saltillo, five hours from Texas, four if you drive fast. It’s not that close to the United States to see dollars in the everyday life like in Tijuana, but it’s close enough to get a mixed-mexican-glimpse of “the american life” compared to central and southern Mexico. My mother-tongue was, from a little age, accompanied, in charge, and in competition with english, that’s why I call it “My little brother”.
I did not born in a bilingual family, english came later, again, it’s my little brother but I, as many mexicans, have relatives living in the United States, Texas to be precise.
I was around five years old when my mom enrolled me at this english school that I went to every Saturday; I didn’t like it much, I preferred the ballet classes so much, she recalls how I used to yelled at her “I don’t want to go to english class, spanish is everything I need!” and the words by Ludwig Wittgenstein “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, comes to my mind when I think about my five-year-old self.
Also the words by the writer Elif Shafak at her inspiring TedTalk, “The Politics of Fiction”:
“If you want to destroy something in this life be it an acne, a blemish or the human soul; all you need to do is surround it with thick walls. It will dry up inside. Now, we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We’re born into a certain family, nation, class… But if we have no connection with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then, we too, run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination may shrink; our hearts may dwindle, and our humanness may whiter, if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family; if all the people in our inner circle resembles us, it means we’re surrounded with our mirror image.”
And by looking too much at our mirror image we create stereotypes
about the ones that do not resemble us. Through literature and by art itself we get to open many windows on our thick cultural clusters, in my experience to hear and speak directly with another person from another culture in another language gave me the opportunity to hear the other side of the stories, to complete them and to have not just one color nor just one version.
We can all benefit from hearing the whole stories, what sometimes is difficult is to find the time and motivation to do it, specially in our present everyday life filled with fast stimuli and masses of information.
Yann Martel, the best selling author of “Life of Pi” said in an interview that the moment that kindled his curiosity on language was when, as a little kid, a teacher taught him how the word “in” and the word “to” could blend into one word: “into” and he thought “Woow that is so cool!”.
My enlightenment came later that same year when I started english on that school, from my little mexican-american cousins Helena and Erick, part of the family I have living in the U.S. came to Mexico for the first time.
The first big hole on my cultural circle was opened when I heard little Helena speaking. I was really amazed by her fluently perfect english and how in a blink of an eye, that english turned into perfect spanish, it was really an act of magic for me. Their visit changed everything, it started a chain of events that would define my life. From that moment I took every single class with dedication and a renew motivation: I wanted my english to sound like Helena’s.
From that moment, english opened a lot of holes on my cultural walls, and throughout my whole childhood and teenage years, it allowed me to understand not only what the Spice Girls and Jay-Z were singing about, but also to expand my vision beyond my everyday life.
Even my perception of the relation between Mexico and the U.S. grew to be more than “the rich and the poor” “The good and the bad”. I saw their attributes and flaws, and I don’t remember having hatred thoughts towards the U.S. as a whole, even in our worst crisis and the sad border stories there were good things that made a balance.
With French and Italian I experienced a much stronger cultural shock from the one that I got from english. It was so different. I had a lot of european teachers and the image I saw looking back at me did not resembled myself at all. I found many incomplete stereotypes about my country and my culture and, at the same time, my idealized idea about Europe was replaced, for good, by a realistic one.
From french I got dedication and a sublime new phonetic and from learning Italian I got a deeper understanding of spanish, and until now, it has never ceased to surprise me.
I’ll quote madame Shafak again: “The commute between languages gives me the chance to recreate myself.”
Each language on its own way is special, I feel connected to each one of them in a different way. The richness that they have given me, the challenges and the satisfactions have been very different from one another, but the greatest gift they gave me, is that they enriched my empathy and tolerance.
It takes time and dedication to beat the fear of facing a whole new grammatical world, but once you let go of the frustration of that gap between the mind and the mouth; you’ll get the chance to spread your ideas even further.
And once you blend a new language into your life, you’ll slowly create a new chance to see the worlds beyond the one you grew up in, with so much openness, understanding and tolerance; beyond stereotypes, beyond your passport. As Kurt Vonnegut once said:
“All variations of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language is, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens not to be standard english, and if it shows itself when you write standard English the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue”.
Graphic edition by Edna Arauz
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