Learning a language: Gaining fluency in a language to be free
The acquisition of language is never a culturally neutral process. When someone learns his or her first or even a second language, that individual also acquires a status in the eyes of the world, based upon how that language is perceived. The race of the speaker, his or her perceived level of education, gender, and race all interact with the stereotypes that exist in the gazer’s mind. In Christine Marin’s essay “Spanish Lessons,” Marin chronicles how her unsteadiness in Spanish did not initially bother her, given the fact that she grew up in a society that prized whiteness. Gradually, as she grew older and her attitude towards her heritage changed, her lack of fluency in her native tongue became a burden. Similarly, Malcolm X was forced to grapple with his complex relationship with the English language. On one hand, it was the language of the white man and the oppressor. On the other hand, to ignore the value of literacy like street thugs meant that he would be forever disenfranchised, forever Malcolm Little rather than his renamed self of Malcolm X
According to Marin, when she was growing up, the act of speaking Spanish marked her as different, even when singing a popular pop song “La Bamba.” When she did so, she and her Mexican-American girlfriends were accused of ‘not being American,’ despite the fact that the song was popular on American radio at the time. Marin knew, even as an adolescent, that the accusation that she was not an American because she didn’t speak English was foolish and deeply ironic — she did not even know the meaning of the words of the song, just like most Anglos who enjoyed grooving to Riche Valens. (And like many of her Anglo counterparts, Marin did not even know that Valens was Mexican-American).
Repeatedly, people assumed that Marin spoke better Spanish than she actually did, simply because of her Hispanic appearance and name. But Marin’s parents had never hoped that their daughter would speak Spanish fluently — as was typical of so many high-aspiring immigrants of the time, they wished her to speak Spanish better than the “gringos,” not to be bilingual (Marin 112). Their worries seemed to be confirmed when Marin’s presumed fluency did get her a job at a place mainly frequented by Hispanic-Americans, where she struggled to communicate with customers in the seedy environment.
Marin’s best subject in high school was English but when she attended college, she was encouraged to major in Spanish and to become a Spanish teacher. A prejudiced professor falsely accused her of copying an essay, simply because the teacher assumed that no Hispanic person could write so well. Once again, Marin’s fluency was misinterpreted because of her ethnicity and skin tone. This frustrated Marin, because it felt like a denial of her voice and core identity.
Gradually, as the Chicano rights movement began to gain in power on her campus, Marin’s attitude towards her heritage began to shift. But even though many of the slogans of the movement were in Spanish, meetings were conducted in English, as this was the first language of the majority of the members on campus. Only after connecting with community activists in the Chicano rights movement did Marin feel motivated to improve her Spanish. Marin went on to become a curator for the university’s Chicano Research collection. This allowed her to merge her love of literature and English with her newfound cultural identity and her improving Spanish skills. Marin now feels that both her Spanish and her English voices are uniquely hers and are fully evident in her work.
Although not bilingual, the African-American activist Malcolm X similarly had to struggle to find his voice in a society that denied the intelligence and worth of his people. As a street hustler, Malcolm X spoke the language of the ghetto, and grew detached from the love of literature and English he had as a young man. However, he reconnected with that love of the language during his spiritual conversion to Islam in jail. His new faith rekindled an interest in using language in a powerful way, rather than merely using words to ‘hustle.’
Malcolm X wrote letters to his former criminal friends in jail. However, even as he wrote, seeking to reach out to them, he knew that most of them did not know how to read, much less appreciate what he was trying to say to them. They had been denied legitimate power in society, and that denial was critically linked to being cut off from written language. Although the English language might be that of the white man, whom Malcolm viewed as a “devil” at the time, the illiteracy of the people Malcolm knew on the street made them fit for little else but a life of crime (Malcolm 96). Malcolm wanted to transcend that old life, and to do so, he knew he would have to learn a new way of articulating himself in English.
Malcolm X grew frustrated with is own lack of literacy. He had never been educated beyond the 8th grade. He wished to write to powerful leaders like Harry Truman and the Governor of Massachusetts and have his words and thoughts be respected and understood. But as angry as he was at white society at the time, he realized that he would have to apply himself and acquire an education. All he knew was slang. Although he could sound reasonably eloquent speaking, on the page he was helpless.
Malcolm X empowered himself through self-directed education in prison, much like Marin empowered herself by educating herself about the history of Chicanos at her university and seeing her struggles with language and identity as part of a larger historical struggle. However, because Malcolm’s education had been so stunted, his learning process was far slower and more painful than Marin’s. Although Malcolm X wanted to read and to be educated, he said that the words before him on the pages of most books might as well have been in Chinese, because he knew so few of them. To rectify the situation (and also to improve his penmanship) he began copying words from the dictionary. Without words, Malcolm X knew he could not read the type of material he wanted to read. If he could not read, he could not express his feelings and thoughts in a manner to make people listen. Although he was in prison, Malcolm X said he had “never been so free” until he regained the gift of literacy and language (Malcolm 97). Malcolm’s self-directed learning seems strange, but it underlines the fact that without the basics of an education and language — whatever that language may be — it does not matter how great someone’s ideas are, if no one will listen or can understand them. Malcolm X went on to be one of the most eloquent African-American speakers of his generation, and most people presumed he had an education far past that of the 8th grade.
I can relate to both of the experiences of these authors. As an Arab-American, like Marin, I find that my culture is often despised and misunderstood. People assume because of my background that I understand the motivations of everyone in the Middle East from Arab sheiks to terrorists. If they hear someone speaking Arabic, they assume that the person is ‘up to no good.’ While fortunately this has never happened to me, I have heard of Arab persons being apprehended while speaking in their native language, because it is assumed that they must be plotting something, if they are not speaking English. Just as Spanish was ‘coded’ as un-American when Marin was a girl, so is the Arabic language today.
Sometimes, when I am in public places like planes and trains I am particularly careful NOT to seem suspicious and shifty. Some people talk about how they worry that they will be the victim of a terrorist attack. While I am worried about such an event I am also worried of being suspected of being a terrorist, simply because I have been rifling through my bag to see if I have forgotten something. Of course, these examples do not pertain to written or spoken language, but they do pertain to body language, which is another way in which people express themselves to the world. I am hyper-aware of the fact that my body language may be interpreted in a different way, simply because of my ethnicity.
People also often assume that I do not speak English well, because I am not Caucasian. It is not unusual for me to be in a store, to be approached and asked if I want assistance, and for the sales associate to speak very slowly, articulating every word as if I am unlikely to be understood. Not everyone assumes that I am Arab, I should note. I have been mistaken for being Indian and Hispanic as well, and…