I’ve wondered if speaking a second language in another part of the world comes with the same emotional baggage as it does in the United States. If you’re a first or second generation American, you might give up your mother tongue to better fit in, or risk being seen as an outsider by the English speakers around you.
I can’t say I remember the exact moment I decided to hide my first language, Spanish. I do remember the day I went to kindergarten with no English skills, and a schoolyard bully took advantage of my lack of language. I couldn’t articulate to my teacher that he had pushed me or taken things away from me. Learning English became a form of defense and my way to navigate the world outside my Cuban family’s home.
In school, I took to English in a way I never had the chance to in Spanish. My teachers and parents encouraged my obsessive English reading habit. Within a grade or two, I went from not being able to speak to reading more than the native English speakers in my class.
Burying my Spanish came at a steep price. I became self-conscious of speaking it in public. I know I’m not alone in this, since the ability to speak Spanish among Latinos has shrunk even as our demographic has grown. It was only in spaces like shopping at a bodega, visiting family businesses or going to a Cuban American family-run dance studio in a predominantly Latino part of town that I felt I could speak what was left of my Spanish.
I say that because I stunted my Spanish skills when I stopped practicing it. I brushed the accent out of my mouth to talk like the other kids at my mostly white school, and in the process, lost some of the mobility to make the right sounds and accents. By moving from city-to-city with different regional sounds and words, my accent no longer sounds like my family’s, and I’m not sure I can ever quite get that part of me back.
Language, like a muscle, can atrophy when you don’t use it. In the 10 years since leaving my parents’ home, moving to different neighborhoods without a big Spanish-speaking population and finding myself in an industry with few other Latinos, my vocabulary took a hit. Once I noticed, the damage was already done.
After enough years of family guilt and allowing my copy of Rosetta Stone to gather dust, I decided to reclaim my original language. I stumbled through writing a few articles in Spanish several years ago, and the process left me crestfallen. I needed more practice running through the different tenses and word choices before I could sprint through two languages like I used to.
Here are five techniques I am employing to regain my Spanish fluency:
At first, I challenged myself to follow Spanish-language news. It gave me the formal version of Spanish I wouldn’t hear anywhere else, free from any regional or country-specific slang. It dusted off memories of coming home from high school to watch “Primer Impacto” on Univision, which gave us the latest news from Latin America that other English language channels wouldn’t cover.
Next, was to play Spanish-language music whenever I could. It’s a passive way to practice, but through listening and memorizing lyrics, I felt like I was using those muscles. I noticed the difference in how much faster I could understand the language, how I knew I was rhythmically off-beat because my next word took too long to get to the tip of my tongue.
I forced myself to read more writers in Spanish, maybe even mouthing the words to myself. I understood what was being said but it ground on my patience to read so slowly.
I started adding app Duolingo to the mix. The app’s gamification of language quizzes, points and daily push notifications pushes me to read and construct sentences. There’s also a component that requires me to speak, which gives me some badly needed practice. I used to be afraid to let my white classmates hear my accent, and now I am afraid other Latinos will judge me for sounding too gringa.
There’s nothing that quite replaces in-person conversation or correspondence. Since connecting with more Spanish-speaking family members and journalists, I’m putting myself into group chats and messages where I have to write in Spanish. Let’s talk, let’s stay connected. Tell me about your day, and I’ll tell you about my día. I try to switch into Spanish when calling relatives or when talking with other Spanish-speaking New Yorkers. Sometimes, it just feels good to hear the sounds of home in someone else’s voice.
Reconnecting with my Spanish turned out to be more difficult than I thought. I always assumed I could fall back into it like bike riding or dancing. Like those two other activities, my stamina and strength is not what it once was. I now need to stretch, warm up longer and a slowly build myself back up to where I used to be.