A SECOND CHANCE The liberating process of learning a language
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
By Amanda Hale | Feb 20, 2020 | Night Forest Press Umbrella Blog
photos by Krista Whitford
I have taken a run at many languages during my life which has been one of travel – emigrating to Montreal, travelling in Central America, India, Egypt, Israel, Greece. It was only during my first visit to Cuba in 2003, to paint a mural in solidarity with the Revolution, that I decided to concentrate my linguistic efforts on Spanish. I had begun learning in Mexico in 1983, hitch-hiking around for 3 months. Significantly it was from children that I learned most easily – through play. Eres niño o niña? they would ask. I was in my androgynous phase, with a brush cut, wearing army pants and boots – confusing to the children. I always remember those bright-eyed kids when I use the word dibujo, because I was drawing in a sketchbook and they kept pointing and repeating that word until I got it. New language is best memorized by linking with a situation, and with all the sensory aspects of such.
On return to Toronto I followed up with Spanish class and workbooks, and realized that learning a language in a mother tongue environment is like swimming against a riptide, and is in any case a relatively sterile exercise – you and the page. I resumed my immersive efforts in rapid-Spanish Nicaragua, and learned more in Guatemala where the majority of the population is indigenous and speak Spanish (when they do) slowly, as a second language. But the immersion was never long or complete enough.
Only when my deep relationship with the Cuban people began, with frequent visits over a 15-year period, did I experience that breakthrough my mother had spoken of in relation to her youth in Paris, whereby individual words jump out of a drowning stream of language, and suddenly everything makes sense. What has most impressed me about this process is that it gives me, temporarily, a new personality.
Or more accurately perhaps, it breaks down the wall between my self and my persona. When Lahiri speaks of “a second chance” I understand her exactly. In Baracoa, Cuba, where I have spent chunks of time and have come to know almost everyone in the small town, no-one speaks English, and this has been a blessing. It has enabled me to become a child again; to dive into the drowning stream trusting that I will survive.
In Cuba allowances are made for eccentric foreigners. My friends say, it’s OK Amanda, we understand what you mean. I am an entertainment, as children are, with their quaint language habits. I have made ridiculous mistakes by confusing similar words – maricón, marisco, marinero, insisting that someone is a homosexual shellfish when he is really a jolly sailor, ordering a pound of esclavos (slaves) instead of clavos (nails) for securing canvas to stretcher, confusing miedo and mierda. For a writer who prides herself on being a wordsmith these incidents could be embarrassing were they not, in context, hilarious.
At the end of a day awash with uncertainty, staying afloat with intuitive guesses in a sea of possibility, I am overcome by the deep exhaustion of tired-brain-syndrome, and sink like a stone into sleep, to dream exultantly in Spanish. I do not speak elegant Spanish; my desire to communicate trumps everything. Dropping a lifetime of perfectionism, I babble, fishing for words in the stream – playful, quite distinct from the solemn adult I became after constant cautioning to “think before you speak.” Then marrying a man who said, “Your problem is you think too much!” The expanded sense of freedom I feel in my second language on the streets of Cuba dissipates when I return to Canada, where my persona dominates, linked as it is to the English language.
On each trip south I have been amazed to rediscover something almost too good to believe in. It’s time to go back to Cuba, to visit my dear ones, and to renew my belief in magic, in second chances. Cuba is now in a worse economic state than ever, knocking again on Russia’s door. No wonder the Cuban response to the 2014 accord between Raúl Castro and Obama was phlegmatic. “Vamos a ver,” everyone said. We’ll see what happens. They’ve seen it all during 61 years of resistance to US governmental bullying. Obama seemed like a chance for renewal, but look what happened.
~ Amanda Hale 2020 NightForestPress.Com