The Wonders of Speaking A Second Language

I used to think that ESL was just an extension of teaching English 101 and 102 until I got to teach a group who did not speak a word of English.

The most difficult part was, I did not speak the group’s language. It was a mass of sign language – of the generic kind; pictures, nods, head shaking, pointing to objects and other such actions just to get to understand each other. With time, the group was able to speak passable English; that is to say, “Come eat my house; I cook my wife.” Seems funny but it simply was an invitation to dinner.

I had a grandmother who spoke fluent Spanish. She, my mother and my aunts would be using Spanish if they would not want us to understand what they were talking about. What we did, my siblings and my cousins so as we would get at least a gist of what they were discussing, was we looked forward to learning Spanish in school, then we would be “in the loop.” But my grandmother already passed away when I finally learned to speak/write Spanish; and, there was nobody I could speak it with except my mother and it was just your usual “Como esta”, “muy bien” and “Adios.” There was no longer the story-telling in Spanish or the juicy topics that they used to talk about. It was quite easy really learning the language as our native tongue consisted of roughly 70 to 90% Spanish words.

I got the chance to live in the Land of the Free and Home of the brave. I finally had the opportunity to speak my second language. Lo and behold! I could not be readily understood by the first few Americans I spoke with at the airport. I got the impression then that I had to speak the language with the American twang. My ears felt ticklish then as I kept on hearing the phrase, “Say what?” as this is an expression I only heard in the movies. Next, I had to flip through my file on idioms as the Americans seem to use these more than the basic subject-verb sentences I learned in English 101. At one time I wanted my bottomless soda refilled at a fastfood center and while it was being refilled, the crew there said, “Say when.” My ears got tickled again and I learned that she was asking me at what portion I wanted my glass refilled. How’s that for thinking in your second language on your feet.

I stayed in Los Angeles where a lot of South Americans have made it their home. Next to English, Spanish was a language that seemed to get you around in the area. Anyway, I was walking in downtown L.A. one morning and a Spanish-speaking lady tapped my arm saying, “Pardona me, por favor.” You guessed right, she was asking for some assistance. As I said earlier, I got to learn Spanish in school and with our language having Spanish words in it, it was a question I readily understood. But speaking it, I wasn’t really sure anymore. Instinctively though, I replied, “Lo siento, pero no hablo Espanol” for which I could have kicked myself for doing so. Obviously she was very happy to find somebody who understood her, “Si, si, Espanol.” I learned that the woman just wanted directions to the church’s cloister as she needed to speak to the priest. With sign language and the little Spanish words I could come up with I was able to do that for her. She gave me a lot of “Muchas gracias” to which my answer again instinctively was, “De nada.” So, that was how it was speaking a third language on your feet. I told this story to my sister who was staying in New York and she never stopped laughing. Apparently, she had the same experience over there herself.

“Come eat my house, I cook my wife” somehow does not seem funny anymore. With time, a foreign language becomes part of you as the culture that comes with it does. It takes a lot of studying of both the culture and the language to get you by in the country of origin and of course, a lot of understanding and patience in both learning and teaching the foreign language.

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