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When people bring up the idea of bilingualism, I can nod and say, “Yes, I can speak two languages…in mediocrity.” I can speak English fluently, and I can speak Spanish fairly well. However, there was a long story behind both of them. I speak the languages in a long history that I must tell. My family and I had a long story behind our languages.
My first language was English. I had learned words since the age of two. However, I had a hard time learning the languages, due to my head injury. I had broken my head when I was a 2-month-old infant. My mom, however, could speak two languages. She had learned a bit of German from her father, who was fluent until the day he died. He stopped speaking German habitually when he was 15, when the State of Michigan stepped into New Salem and said, “Your kids have to learn English. It is a requirement. You can’t stick to the family traditions all the time or they will get nowhere.” Mom had learned a few phrases from him, and she continued her education in high school – at Fennville and Union High School.
However, I only knew English. I had a hard time learning it. I took longer to learn it than the average child who was fluent at the age of two. I was fluent in English at the age of three. I could not talk very well back then. I also had motor ailments, hearing impairments, and bad equilibrium. My parents both spoke English, as I already said. My mom knew a bit of German, but my Dad spoke English thoroughly. Of course, if Mom tried to talk to us in German, we could not really understand her. Of course, we all just spoke fluent English at home. I spoke English throughout all my life, as you can possibly imagine. In addition, of course, we had our euphemisms, like the statues in Mom’s bedroom were “pretties.” “Don’t touch the ‘pretties,’” she would say. “They break easily.” Snot was called “boogies.” Gross things on the floor were called “ockies.” Being naughty was called “doing a David.” Saying something impertinent was called “doing a Sarah.” Doing something stupid was “pulling a Justin.” What one would call “feecies” was “poo-poo.” In addition, there were many more euphemisms in our home. It was part of what made us intimate at our home.
When I started school, I was extremely shy. However, I still spoke English whenever I was called upon and, of course, when I was reluctant to talk. In kindergarten, I was so shy that Mrs. Coffin thought I was mute.
Well, I continued to speak English until I started learning a second one in the second grade. That was when I began to learn Spanish. A unique Peruvian man named Claudio came to our second grade class in elementary school, and he taught us Spanish every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Mrs. Noonan got along well with him, as she did with everybody. This was where I began to learn my second language.
When Claudio came in, I was a little hesitant. I never really spoke to anybody in class before, I never raised my hand in class, and my peers picked me on a lot. However, Claudio came in amiably nevertheless. He came in ecstatically. I saw the class look at him indifferently, whereas I just kind of sat and cringed. I saw the man come in.
Claudio looked like a version of Borat, but he acted just like Santa Clause. He came into the classroom, and he said, “Buenas dias, everyone! I am excited to see all of your smiling faces.”
Mrs. Noonan came up from her desk and said, “Class, I am glad to introduce you to Claudio. Can you say ‘hi’ to Claudio?”
“Hi, Claudio,” everyone said in unison.
“Buenas dias, children,” Claudio said, “I am Claudio. In addition, I am going to teach you Spanish for the year. I hope that you can get used to me, for I am very patient, and I will work with you on whatever you need help with. Believe me; this will be a fun time for you.”
I cringed again, but I reluctantly sat up and looked at Claudio. I was very shy and reticent in school. I was also very timid. However, I knew that I would have to fight this. Therefore, I looked up and smiled at him.
Therefore, Claudio started his lesson. When Claudio began to teach us, we all listened attentively. He began to speak.
“Well, class,” he said. “I am going to teach you a very specific rule of Spanish. Alternatively, should I say español? There is always the word ‘the’ in ingles, correct? However, ‘the’ does not have a masculinity or femininity in ingles. It is just ‘the.’ Too simple. Hay caramba! I could rant about this all day. Well, children, in Spanish, there are masculinity and femininity, just as if you are ‘boys’ and ‘girls.’ ‘The’ takes two different forms in español. It takes the form of ‘el’” – here he wrote the terms on the whiteboard – “and ‘la.’ El” – he pointed to it – “is for the boys, and la” – he pointed to it, as well – “is for the girls. Now say it with me. El and la. Can you say it? El. La.”
The class responded with him in unison. “El. La.”
Claudio applauded. “Gracias, chicos. You have done well. That concludes our lesson for today. I hope to see you tomorrow.”
After the first lesson in second grade, Claudio began to delve deeper into Spanish. He taught us greetings in Spanish. We learned phrases that compared to everyday English language. Such conversations would go like this.
“¡Hóla! ¿Cómo estás?”
“Muy bien, ¿y tú?”
“Así, así. Gracias.”
“De nada. ¿Como te llamas?”
“Me llamo José, ¿y tú?”
“Me llamo Diego.”
“¿Cuantos años tienes?”
“Tengo ocho años. ¿Y tú?”
“Tengo diez años. Gracias.”
Of course, this conversation was followed the basics of Spanish. Before this, Claudio taught us numbers in Spanish. For example, uno was one. It was similar to the game “Uno,” which had the objective of only having “one” card left. It was also similar to the Latin word uni, which meant one. The list of numbers is as follows.
Uno – one – similar to uni.
Dos – two – similar to di.
Tres – three – similar to tri.
Cuatro – four – similar to quadra.
Cinco – five – similar to quinta.
Seis – six.
Siete – seven – similar to septa.
Ocho – eight – similar to octa.
Nueva – nine – similar to nona.
Diez – ten – similar to deca.
Of course, as the numbers went on, they got a lot easier to remember. For example, 21 was “veintiuno.” In addition, forty-four was “cuarenta y cuatro.” However, there were confusing ones like 11 through 15. Those numbers were once, doce, trece, catorce, and quince. What one had to remember, though, was that they all went in sequential order with “-ce” at the end of it. At least, that was how I remembered it.
Claudio taught us colors. He taught us each color of the rainbow. Red was rojo, where the “j” sounded like an English “h.” Green was verde. Blue was azúl. Yellow was amarillo. (Funny, huh? “Yellow” Texas. Heh-heh! Dastardly cowards!) Pink was rosado. Brown was café, which sounded a lot like “coffee” to me. Black was negro, which was where the term “Negro” derived from down in the South. White was blanco, which reminded me of the term “blank.” Orange was anaranjado. In addition, gold was dorado. In addition, Claudio taught us much more.
Claudio taught us the days of the week, which had a catchy little song to it. It talked about lunes, martes, miercoles, jueves, viernes, sabado, and domingo. In translation, they were Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We also learned about clothing. For example, pants were pantalones, a sweater was a sueter, and glasses were gafas. We learned about food. Milk was leche. A hamburger was an hamburguesa. An orange was a naranja. We learned about body parts. For example, a head is a cabeza. A hand is a mano. A foot is a pie. Fingers and toes are dedos. (It rather reminded me of Ditto, the cute little blob Pokémon.) In addition, a butt was nalgas. Eyes were ojos. A mouth was a boca. An ear was an oreja.
By the time I was in fourth grade, I no longer saw Claudio. We were passed along to Mrs. Tempas, or Sra. Tempas to be politically correct. She always stressed that she “was married.”
With Sra. Tempas, we learned how to say the date in Spanish. For example, today is martes, el veintidos de marzo, dos millo once. To write it shorthand, one would put Hoy es martes, el 22 de marzo 2011. By this time, we had learned the months, which consisted of enero, febrero, marzo, abril, mayo, junio, julio, agusto, septiembre, octobre, noviembre, and diciembre. For example, el Cinco de Mayo (the holiday) means “the fifth of May.” We also learned about animals. For example, a cow is a vaca. A dog is a perro. A cat is a gato. A frog is a rana. Etc. We learned the seasons (invierno, verano, primavera, and atumna), the family members (madre [mother], padre [father], primo/as [cousins], tío [uncle], tía [aunt], hermano [brother], hermana [sister], hijo [son], hija [daughter], máma, pápa, abuelo [grandpa], abuela [grandma], etc.), and the times of day (día [day], tarde [afternoon], noche [night]).
By the time I was in fifth grade, I was learning more and more about Spanish. Sra. Hernandez, a good friend of ours from Church, taught us how to speak it. We learned much more than we had ever thought of. We learned pronouns. For example, he was él, she was ella, they (boys) was ellos, they (girls) was ellas, they (unisex) was ellos, we was either nosotros or nosotras, you guys was either vosotros or vosotras, I was yo, you (informal) was tú, and you (formal) was usted. We also learned opposites. For example, smart is to dumb as intelegente is to tonto. We learned about objects in the classroom. Such objects were as follows:
Book – libro.
Notebook – cuaderno.
Whiteboard – pizzarra.
Pencil – lápiz
Map – ¬mápa
Eraser – borridor
Pen – pluma or bolígrafo
Paper – ¬papel
Desk – pupitre
Chair – silla
Calculator – calculadora
Computer – computadora
We also learned about sports. For example, football was fútbol americano, and soccer was fútbol. Basketball was basketbol, and baseball was beisbol. Swimming was nada, etc. We also learned the conjunctions, which are y, o, and pero (and, or, and but).
In 6th grade, I was learning how to speak with prepositions. I learned about adjectives, prepositions, and verbs and conjugates. I also learned about different objects around us. Adjectives were simple. For example, happy was feliz, mean was antipatico, tall was alto, short was bajo, big was grande, small was pequeño, etc. Adjectives always came after the noun they described. For example, in English, it would be “the handsome man,” but in Spanish, it would be “the man handsome,” i.e. el hombre guapo. It was interesting, after all. Prepositions were interesting, too. In English, there are the following prepositions: with, in, inside, to, through, outside, around, at, under, underneath, over, for, of, etc. However, in Spanish, they were remarkably similar. Here are a few translations:
In addition, there were others. They were all parts of prepositional phrases. In addition, sometimes, prepositions combined with objective pronouns, such as the word “with.” “With” could be combined with “you” or “me” to create contigo or conmigo. It was interesting.
However, the verbs were the interesting part. Where in English, verbs are straightforward and are only dependent on the tense (past, present, and future), Spanish verbs had to be conjugated to agree with each other. For example, think of the simple state of “being.” To be or not to be. Well, there is the phrase to be in Spanish. It is translated as ser. However, ser has to be conjugated into different terms. It shows as follows:
It is all very interesting. I always combined these words into phrases or whatnot. We all learned about different objects. For example, video games are video juegos. A motorcycle is a moto. In addition, one can think of everything else.
Of course, there was life outside of school where I was not learning. Outside of school, my entire class would begin to speak to each other in Spanish. For example, I would have a random conversation with my best friend, Peter Triezenberg. I would say to him, “¡Hóla! ¿Como te llamas?”
“Me llamo Peter,” he said, “¿y tú?”
“Me llamo Justin,” I said. “¿Cómo estás?”
“Estoy bien,” he said, “¿y tú?”
“Soy asi, asi,” I said, “pero gracias.”
In addition, we would continue talking in Spanish so much that the teacher, someone like Miss Sharpe, would get so mad that she would scream at the top her lungs for us to shut up. It was rather funny.
Another part of being a Spanish speaker was being at home. We spoke English at home, as I have already said, but Elyse was super-fluent in Spanish, and I was mediocre. Sean was—meh—kinda so-so. Stef could not speak it very well. Elyse would be the first to address the conversation.
“¡Hóla, mi familia! ¿Como esters?” she asked.
“Estoy bien,” I said.
“Estoy bien,” Sean said.
“Bien, ¿y tú?” Stef said.
“Bien, gracias. ¿Y cómo es tus días?”
“Bien,” I said.
“Asi, asi,” Sean said.
“No hablo español,” Stef said.
“Lo cento, Stefanie,” Elyse said. “Pero, mi día es may excellent!”
“Ya!” Sean and I both shouted.
“¿Donde está Madre?” Elyse asked.
“Lo no se,” I said.
“No comprendo,” Sean said.
“¿Qué?” Stef said, hesitantly.
“¡Qué lástima!” Elyse shouted.
“¿Por qué?” I asked.
“Lo no se,” Elyse said.
“¡Hay caramba!” I shouted.
“¿Qué?” Elyse asked.
I then sat back down. “Nada.”
“OK,” Elyse said.
Then we would continue to talk in Spanish until Mom would come in and hear us. She would not be able to understand a word we said, so she would say angrily, “Hey, guys! Speak English! I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Tú eres loco, Madre,” Elyse said humorously. We all laughed.
Mom did not understand what she said, but she frowned and shook her head, assuming that Elyse said something rude and sarcastic. “Elyse, please stop talking in Spanish. It would be really nice,” she said to her.
“Lo ciento, Madre,” Elyse said. “Y, es ‘no hablan español, por favor.’”
“I’m sorry,” Mom said, “but I don’t speak Spanish.”
“Es español, Máma,” Elyse said, and we all laughed.
“What?” Mom said. “What are you saying?”
“Ustéd es una americana tonta,” Elyse said, snickering. I laughed along with her.
“What are you saying, Elyse? If you don’t tell me, the van keys will disappear for a week. Because I do not know what you are saying, it is unfair to me, and you know it. Speak English, or I will have to do something.”
“Lo ciento, Máma.”
“How about this. No hah-blow espan-yol.”
Elyse switched back to English. “Sorry, Mom,” she said. “I was only joking.”
“Lo ciento, Madre,” I said.
“Not you too,” Mom said, rolling her eyes.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry,’” I said. “I did not say anything else, as far as I am aware.”
“Good then,” Mom said. “Let’s have some dinner. How about it?”
We all cheered, and we all got to our duties.
In addition, time went by as soon as things came and passed. I continued to learn Spanish in Corpus Christi until Nguyen’s Vendetta took place. That was when I transferred to Macatawa Bay Middle School for a “better” education, especially one where I would be socially accepted amongst the teachers. Of course, Mac Bay turned out for the worst. However, I will not reveal that to you until I write my autobiography, which will be written in many years from now. I will not mention Nguyen’s Vendetta or the Mac Bay Ordeal until then.
That summer, after I transferred to Mac Bay, I went to Costa Rica. In addition, it was really cool. I could speak to any of the locals around there in Spanish. Or español. When I went with the ZPS folks, I had a lot of fun. The ZPS (Zeeland Public Schools) folks were teachers from a variety of schools, including Zeeland Christian, Holland Christian, Zeeland, and Holland. The leaders were Bill Van Dyke, Sam Nichols (the person who literally saved my life, as said in a journal that my father still holds onto to this day), Bethany Nichols, Sue De Graaf, and Mary Supanich. They were all teachers from around the Holland/Zeeland area. The students were from a variety of schools, including Mac Bay (me only), Cityside, Creekside, Holland Christian, Zeeland Christian, and Black River. What was interesting was that I was the only one in the group who could speak español fairly well. Van Dyke had even confessed that the only word he knew in español was agua, and that, of course, meant “water.” Well, when we got to San José, Costa Rica, we met our tour guide Carlos-Alberto Lopez, or “Cabeto” for short. When I met him, he was a really cool person. He had this big intimidating first impression about him. He looked to be about in his forties or so, and he was physically fit. He had big arm muscles and strong legs, and, despite his glasses, he had a grim look about his face. However, when he looked at me, he smiled, and it was so enticing, that anyone could faint from looking at him. He would draw you to him as Jesus Christ did back in New Testament times. In addition, as we began to grow close to him, he was Christlike in many ways. However, the funny part was this: when I grew close to Cabeto, he realized that I could speak Spanish. In addition, we would have “secret” conversations that the English-speaking Americans would not be able to understand. I was marveled at how much I knew and how I was able to communicate with the Costa Ricans. When we visited an elementary school in Azúl, Costa Rica, I was marveled that I could speak to the knowledgeable children and that I could understand what they were saying. There were few things that I could not understand (e.g. a boy wanted to hold my hand as we walked down to lunch), but I could get the gist of what they were saying, and what they wanted to do. My peers would even ask me to translate for them so they would understand what their newfound friends were saying. I was like Cabeto’s right-hand man in interpreting. Cabeto had been the chief interpreter, while I had been the secondary one. Cabeto was far more fluent than I was, so he had every right of being head honcho, but I could speak fairly well, and I was useful amongst my peers.
By the time eighth grade came around, I had signed up for Spanish at Mac Bay. What was interesting, though, was that I knew the material. I asked Srta. Dam if I could try my skills, and she obliged. I tried out the exam, and I got a 97% on it. Srta. Dam talked to Mr. Pritchett about letting me transfer out and then come back to Spanish B, and I played along with it. However, Mr. Pritchett misinterpreted what Srta. Dam had said, and he told me that if I took out Spanish A, the rest would be a “domino effect,” as Harry Truman had called the Communist Problem back in the 1950s. Therefore, I blindly played along, and I ended up taking Computers II, physical wellness, and mod tech. I have not taken Spanish for three years now.
Even though I have not taken Spanish for three years, I can still speak it and understand it quite well. Elyse is far more fluent than I (for she went to Nicaragua and spoke perfectly), but I can still understand what the Hispanics are saying in the hallway. You do not want to know what the Hispanics talk about because many of the words are rather obscene, dirty, and innuendo-like, but I snicker on my understanding of their conversations. They assume I do not know it, but I can understand them just fine. Better, keep your guards up. For assumptions are lethal.
Well, I have learned a lot about English and Spanish. I am fluent in one—for this is what my essay is written in—and I am good with the other. I have learned a lot from my Spanish education, and I appreciate it dearly. My Spanish is still good enough that I can hear those wannabe-gangsters talking in the hallways. I always loved to snicker, and I have never had a better chance. O, Spanish, how I love you so! I could never forget one like you!