A linguistic autobiography

The essay was prepared originally for ENGL 623, “Second Language Acquisition,” Northern Illinois University, spring 2017.

During my “critical period” of first-language acquisition, the caregivers were English-speakers, but the language input became more diverse as I ventured beyond the threshold of my parents’ home in Tirrenia, Comune de Pisa, Italy, and then, later, in Schofield Barracks, the tropically shrouded U.S. Army installation on O’ahu, Hawai’i. In Italy, we lived in a private apartment surrounded by Italian families. Local children retrieved toys and other items that I threw off the balcony, and my siblings and parents all acquired Italian – some a smattering, others more. On the multiethnic Hawaiian Islands, children and adults at my school and on post spoke Japanese or Hawaiian or Filipino or Ilocano, presumably code switching and deferring to English – that is, to the U.S. Army’s heavily encoded dialect – when at work. Instruction was exclusively in English, although there were occasional “Polynesian cultural days” on which we learned Hawaiian phrases, wore grass skirts, and strummed ukuleles.

Thus I heard a mélange of tongues but don’t remember processing these sounds as alternative means of communication. With my parents I traveled to Okinawa, the Philippines, Thailand, and India; still, I remained oblivious to the practical difficulties that language difference might cause. Children in the streets of Delhi in 1971 communicated by touching my light-colored skin and hair. I understood their welcome, without words. On these travels we had a driver-cum-translator, but I never stopped to think what he was doing when he negotiated elephant rides or tours of the Taj Mahal in Hindi, Punjabi, or Urdu.

My first language course was middle-school Spanish. Initially, I found second-language study puzzling and could not fully internalize the existence of other grammars or the reason for their existence. It took me weeks to grasp that Spanish incorporated a distinctive morphological system for verbs. Conjugation was a mystery, not to mention differences between ser and estar. We were taught by the wife of my Episcopalian parish pastor, then, variously, by native-speakers from Puerto Rico, México, and Madrid. Classroom-based textbook learning and memorization failed to inspire me much – as students we mumbled through the prerecorded dialogues (typically concerning whether Susana was or was not at home) and devised counterintuitive mnemonic devices for learning vocabulary. (“Tina sounds small so it must be something big, like ‘bathtub.’”) And at this time, in the mid-1970s, living outside Washington, DC, in a subdivision populated extensively by expatriate diplomats and their families, I felt that the chances of needing to speak Spanish were pretty remote. Swedish seemed more popular than Spanish, at least in my bowling league.

In other classrooms I’ve studied Italian and German, biblical Greek (κοινὴ) and Hebrew. I tried Russian and Ukrainian on my own. None of these was learned primarily for human interaction, although Italian proved useful when I landed in a study-abroad program in Florence, living with an elderly couple, the Capellis, off Piazza Puccini and trying to explore the country by train.

I speak a high-status language but have a low-status appraisal of my language capabilities. I’m much more impressed by the hotel housekeepers in Cape Town who dial among isiZulu, isiXhosa, English, and township and standard varieties of Afrikaans. Since starting to teach with a literacy nonprofit in 2010, I have been deferred to and sought for expertise on English, merely because I learned as a native-speaker. Which seems a bit like going to a dolphin for advice on swimming. For instance, at a public-school teachers’ colloquium in Neiva, Huila, Colombia, I was asked to speak about second-language reading instruction. I anticipated that this would be a fifteen- or twenty-minute appearance. “No,” the organizers wrote back. “We’ve scheduled you for two hours.” My native-speaker competence was no match for the university-trained linguists in the audience, who peppered me with questions about the formation of English phonemes. Following this jolt of awareness, I became conscious that, in almost any setting abroad, I would be among the least-qualified instructors based on having learned English as a first language and, except in Latin America, being ignorant about the L1, whether Lithuanian, Cape Verdean Creole, or Thai.

The language that I never studied in classroom after middle school has proved the most useful. Teaching women and men from Guerrero and Veracruz, from Michoacán and Guanajuato, from Guayaquil, Ecuador, and Bucaramanga, Colombia, I found the most effective language-learning incentives to be cultural connection and justice. Language teaching, maybe teaching of all kinds, involves being conscious of the risks that students are taking by their presence. Whether sitting in a language class or pushing beyond the safety perimeter of an organized tour or hotel while traveling, a person in the L2 takes on a potentially traumatizing deficiency. Suddenly, after discoursing in the morning with great authority about inequities in healthcare access or the merits of a particular network router, I’m struggling to name the color of paint on the wall or ask for a salad.

María, one of my Atlanta students, made me aware of special vulnerabilities, the soul-crushing dangers of a migrant trying to employ the “higher status” language of her new country. Working as a table busser and food runner at an elite social club, María decided to use her English to greet one of the regular patrons before breakfast. This stunningly brave, petite Mexican woman watched as the man walked past her without a word or a glance. This is an experience, as a white-skinned possessor of the most privileged form of the world’s most monetized language, able to produce on demand a blue passport embossed with pictures of eagles and Mount Rushmore, that I’ve never known. For reasons of equity, then, it’s an obligation to study my students’ L1 as they are studying mine. I would never ask students to do something I would not do myself.

Another side benefit of being a privileged speaker of a dominant language is that my efforts to learn a new tongue are applauded, rarely mocked, and certainly not ignored. It’s hard to admit that I enjoy speaking Spanish for the validation. I get a troubling ego boost when transacting smoothly with a man selling paletas from a handcart. The reality is that anybody – Lao, Haitian, Inuit, and so on – will walk away with a paleta if they have two dollars in their hand. It’s uncertain if I use Spanish at times in the classroom to aid understanding or to seek approval. At least I’m aware, having seen the phenomenon in action during language intercambios, that aggressive learners representing a dominant L1 might seek to prioritize their learning goals over the needs of a structurally subordinate population trying to practice an L2.

As a language student, I respond to environmental stimulus and think of the classroom, particularly in ESL (versus EFL) contexts, as denuded of the naturally occurring incentives to learning that exist outside. Classroom training serves ideally to sort and decode the input from the world, offering some way to manage chaos and for students to reaffirm their intrinsic self-worth. I value my language teacher as the one granting assurance, guidance of extraordinary tenderness, like Virgil cleansing Dante’s face on emergence from the inferno (Purgatorio, canto 1, 121-129).

“Yes,” the teacher says, “I really do understand you.”

Note: All names of students have been changed to preserve anonymity.