As a language educator and translator, travel is critical to my professional development and language maintenance. Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It evolves and shifts in response to developments in the culture it serves. Think about it – is the English we speak in Texas the same as the English they speak in New Jersey? Or Australia? The speech patterns, accents, and word choices in these places have developed differently because each place has a distinct culture with its own set of influences.
Take my own speech patterns. I’m Texan born and raised, with a clearly evident Texas accent. But when I’m in a professional setting, I unconsciously turn my accent off and use a neutral dialect. When students or colleagues happen to hear my native accent pop up, their absolute astonishment just confirms how completely I switch dialects at work. And when I speak another language, my native accent disappears altogether.
I grew up in an English speaking home. French was added to my curriculum when I was in second grade, Latin in fifth, Greek in eighth (okay, to be honest, I took it to avoid PE class). I picked up a fair amount of Spanish along the way, and began to study it formally in college. Grad school – for Hispanic Literature – added Portuguese to my repertoire.
Because I have an ear for the sounds of a language, I imitate and internalize accents very easily. I’ve always been able to “sound right” when speaking a foreign language. But I hadn’t had much opportunity to go overseas and immerse myself in the languages or cultures I was studying, so it was all still a shade mechanical. I had actually already been teaching and working as a translator for several years when my first chance to go to a Spanish speaking country arose.
I went to Mexico for a few short days with several other Spanish teachers. And that was it. I was hooked. Different accents, ethnic clothing and food, new vocabulary – I couldn’t soak it in fast enough. I got to visit monuments, see exotic wildlife, and bargain with vendors in the mercado. The heavy black rebozo I bought is still one of my most prized possessions.
And I came home with a whole new appreciation for the history and culture of the language I was teaching. Teaching about the Mayans was much more relevant after walking through a Mayan village, and discussing the impact of the guerrilla movement in Chiapas took on new dimensions after teenaged Mexican soldiers stopped our vehicle to see if we might be taking contraband weapons to the guerrillas.
That was only the beginning. Since then, I have spent time in several other countries, most notably Costa Rica, Ecuador, and my favorite, Spain. Spain is where the language emerged, spinning out from Latin as the Roman Empire fragmented and other cultures found their way into the Iberian Peninsula. The Visigoths, followed by the Muslim invaders from Northern Africa, lent their vocabulary and cultural practices to a language already carrying traces of the Basques, the Celts, and the Greeks.
Every Spanish textbook points out that words starting with AL come from Arabic, while most words ending in MA come from Greek. Those facts were just abstract minutiae to me until I walked through the Mezquita de Cordoba, where Spain’s Muslim and Christian traditions coexist in casual harmony within the same structure, built on the site of an ancient Visigoth church. Until I walked over a 2000 year old bridge still in use by people whose modern dialect descends directly from the archaic language of the builders.
Once a language student begins to see those connections, history stops being dry facts to memorize. Language suddenly becomes a dynamic living entity, intimately connecting generations of experience and sociopolitical evolution. And those of us who speak that second or third or fourth language learn that bilingualism opens a door into a world that would otherwise only be available to us at the most superficial level.
And that’s when the fun starts.