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On Language.

January 26, 2017

On language. 

 

I find this a curious, maybe humorous occasion, that I, a young woman of medium charm and talent, should be having this conversation with you today. Nonetheless, it seems there’s a series of unfortunate events that have led you and I to be standing here, right now, with no choice but to voice our inhibitions and try to coincide on something, or nothing. 

 

I propose to talk about language on this fine evening, that one thread that unites us and single-handedly builds walls that divide us - about the paradigm it presents and how we use it to determine if one is foe or ally.

 

I’ll share a series of souvenirs from my own personal experience, being that which I possess as a first hand source, and may voice some opinions which, I’ll announce in advance, may or not be to your liking. I’ll set the disclaimer, too, that these are not meant to offend (although it may count as a slightly advantageous side effect). 

 

Language is a curious concoction which I’ve come across my entire life. Since I was very young, I’ve been a child of a double identity. My native persona is Latina, speaks Spanish. My intellectual side speaks English with a London accent. I’ve grown to speak two more romance languages and my brain sometimes resembles that one scene where everyone talks with different gestures, words, sounds, and attitudes. 

 

I never understood why it was, when I traveled to the US and mentioned I spoke Spanish, people would alter their behaviour. Sometimes it’s the pleasant “Oh, that’s so cool!” situation, where one finds something in common with another that immediately creates a bond. Sometimes, it’s an alteration of the way in which service is being provided. Suddenly rude, suddenly assuming, stunningly racist for someone who just, minutes ago, was treating me like the Queen herself, just because I sound like her. One instance that particularly captures my attention is that moment when, usually tour guides, will begin to attempt translating everything they manage to. It’s taken me years to understand, through a rather postponed train of thought, why people have a tendency to do this. 

 

First, I thought it was mere politeness, trying to include everyone in the group. Then, I figured, these people must be quite excited to be able to utilise a rusty set of tools they’ve picked up through a variety of high school classes and past, foreign, Spanish speaking tourists. Finally, I’ve come to realise that it is a mirrored effect that comes from a culture that is used to - despite its own nature in many cases - only one language. I’ve come to notice that those that are used to living in a world, i.e. a country with dimensions big enough to actually travel, explore, live, grow, die in, without ever leaving its borders, are also accustomed to having one sole language. Every sign will be in English. Every person will speak English. There will not be a situation where you couldn’t come across an English speaker within a one or two mile radius. Sure, they might have broken English and speak with an accent. Sure, the sign might have English captions and be primarily in another language, yet it will always include words you know, words you feel comfortable with, words you’ve embraced. Like, say, tacos. 

 

This realisation overcame me one day when I saw a grown man struggle to find the Spanish word to replace his description of a something or other that was attractive in the city of San Francisco. This person, accommodating as he was, kept trying to pick his brain and find the correct translation, even though I could understand everything he’d already said in English with a clarity like that of the Pacific Ocean. His kind disposition lead me to understand that your translation comes from a place of instinct, of nature. If roles were reversed, and I were giving this tour in full out Spanish, this man would probably be unable understand more than two or three words of broken sentences and would miss the funny anecdote of this building here, or that museum there. His translation, unnecessary and somewhat humorous as it was at that moment, came from a place of love, not hate. One idea of uniting our worlds, and not dividing them because I was born far from his country’s borders. 

 

I’ve found understanding plays better than mere judgement and always remember that people that speak with an accent, rarely actually think with an accent and should thus be treated, by you, by me, by everyone present. I’ve made a conscious effort not to laugh at the fact that you hadn’t realised the fact that salsa literally means “sauce” and not just chopped up tomatoes; or that tacos don’t need to come in a hard shell, because every country has its own version of them and they’re all gloriously varied and delicious. I’ll try to bypass the idea of queso being that plastic-looking yellow molten thing that you’ll serve, when it’s a word used by millions to describe, well, cheese. Hell, I’ll even jump over the sombreros and the hombres for the sake of international cooperation and will point out that not everyone that speaks the second most used language in the world is actually from Mexico.

 

I point all of these ideas out, not for the purpose of highlighting your ignorance or even sometimes ill-intended remarks and reactions. I do this to establish a treaty - of peace, of acceptance, or friendship as it may - to bring about perhaps the one central idea I wished to discuss with you today. That idea is simple, and it’s not even fresh. It all comes down to this: Language is, and will always be, a skill, a tool, a bond. It brings you and I together to a table where we can speak as equals since I share the ability to convey this message to you in the one tongue you may understand fully. It helps us in unexpected situations and reflects our identity - one that should be celebrated, not hidden; embraced, not labeled. It is that simple concoction of an idea that sometimes slips your mind and one that I wanted to display for all to see. 

 

In a world so divided, it would be best, in my not so humble opinion, to try unity, instead of disparity. Throw a babel fish in your ear and “do as the Romans do”, or the Mexicans, or the Argentinians, or whoever tickles your fancy. Just, once, for all that’s good, consider merging barriers, not building any more walls. 

 

 

 

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Susy

Alfaro