I started taking a class on language acquisition and adult learners. I am LOVING it! Last week, we had to respond to the prompt below. I have always loved the Spanish language, ever since I started learning it some…(wow)…17 years ago! But I’ve never really been able to pinpoint why. Here’s a theory I considered last week:
Discussion Question Prompt:
Do you think that you are (or would be) a “good” or a “poor” L2 learner? Why do you think so? Consider whether you believe that your own relative level of success as a language learner is due primarily to linguistic, psychological, or social factors.
I speak two languages: English (my L1 language) and Spanish (my L2 language). As a Black American who learned to “code switch” between dialects in my formative years, the concept of the many functions of language has always been very personal for me. Perhaps this is why learning Spanish has always been a fascinating endeavor since I started—perhaps it enabled me to speak free of implications to the outside world. In this way, there may have been a subconscious sociolinguistic approach to my L2 learning. I have always considered myself a good L2 learner of Spanish primarily because of linguistic reasons: Spanish is a language with a simple, true-to-form structure in both oral and written formats; unlike English, which is often phonetically deceitful.
As a singer, I found the trustworthy phonetic values of its vowels as constant as any musical tone, which I could just as easily emulate and dominate with my voice. Now, as I reflect (though, I consider the reason for my success with the actual language to be its linguistic structure) I can’t help but wonder if the reason for my affinity for the language itself was the social anonymity it afforded me. My audience did not see a black female who spoke “like a white girl,” or black person with a “Black dialect” who “improperly” did not pronounce the “g” on the suffix “-ing.” No. My audience, my listeners saw someone who sounded like a near-native speaker of a language that bore little need for prologue in its current social setting.
Perhaps speaking Spanish has freed me to be unencumbered with the social repercussions of every single syllable and every single tone that I speak, even if I am joyfully linguistically aware of them. I could simply speak a language, without the restriction and burden of having to defend to anyone the manner in which I did. Perhaps it has been a combination of linguistic and social factors that has contributed to my success in my L2 acquisition.
It never dawned on me until now that learning, and then speaking, Spanish for me was perhaps an escape from the ill-fitting social pressures of assuming the restrictions of identity that the world demands of you. Growing up in a town with a nearly half-and-half split population of Blacks and Whites, I was the kid who was never Black enough or White enough. While this wasn’t something I felt a great deal of intrinsic pressure about, I was keenly aware of it as an outward social phenomenon, though I’d be less than honest to think I came out of it completely unscathed. But, I much preferred just being free to dance and be intellectual and cut Yo Mamma jokes and make good grades and make beats on the cafeteria table and study insects and hang out with the cool kids and hang out with the nerds and listen to R&B music and ponder existential thoughts and hang out with Black folks and White folks alike. In the world of my childhood, though, all of that produced a dissonance that, at large, was socially reconciled with only a scarce number of individuals. I think the same is still true today in many communities, unfortunately.
Language (including dialect, diction and tone), as a signifier of identity, played into that. I once saw a quote that said something like, “If you use slang too soon with White people, you’re too Black; and if you don’t use slang soon enough with Black people, you’re not Black enough.” I absolutely still find this to be true, even in adulthood, and it was certainly my experience in grade school.
Enter Spanish! Here was another way of speaking, of hearing my own voice, that alleviated the social tension of consciously wading through my speech-induced identity. And the fact that I was good–really good–at the language meant a kind of freedom that maybe made me want more and more of it. One unanticipated result of this was that it caused me to introspect about my identity once again after I truly began to speak my new language with ease (I’ll have to do a separate post about that). I was very proud to be Black American, and had no need for a sense of ethnic identity that didn’t belong to me. However, I came to reconcile it as a new facet of the fabric of who I am as an individual. I am female, I am Black American, I am Southern, I am bilingual, among many other things.
Who knows? Maybe I’m being overly analytical and it’s simply that the perfectionist in me loves Spanish because of its linguistic harmony.
But I’m curious now about the experiences of other Black American (or other racial/ethnic minority) bilinguals or polyglots. And, if there are others who think they love their second (or third or fourth) language(s) because of the freedom from restrictive “speech-induced identity.” If you speak another language and just LOVE it, why do you think that is?
(By the way, I still code switch between dialects in English…in fact, I code switch in Spanish now, too! 🙂 )