Some parents spell out questionable words when in the presence of children. Others, including mine, just switch languages. As soon as my parents would speak Spanish, we knew it was a subject not meant for children’s sensitive ears. Language was the barrier between ours and the adults’ world. It was a firm exclusion, shielding us from “adult talk.”
For me, hearing Spanish turned into a symbol of alienation: it barred me from going out-of-bounds, into forbidden territory, where they were allowed. I wondered why I was excluded from this aspect of interaction with my own family.
Is that what it means to be an adult? When do I get my initiation?
By a certain age, I realized that it wasn’t going to happen. Teaching me Spanish was not on the agenda.
One side of me panicked: I didn’t want to be counted among the gringas. I wanted to be a full-fledged member of this world, and I thought speaking the right language was the key into this existence, into which I desperately wanted inclusion.
My grandmother must have sensed my curiosity.
In my memory, I’m a young girl, sitting in a dress on an armchair, and she is next to me. Open on my lap is the Bible, in Spanish. I’m reading aloud, with grama coaxing me easily, word by word. Coaching me, correcting my pronunciation. Mixing her accent into my own Spanish.
I didn’t understand what I was reading, but the waters were familiar. The bubbly, smoothly gliding Puerto Rican accent, with its peaks and valleys of intonation. I swallowed them, made them mine. S’s tossed casually aside, toothy J’s in unexpected places. I connected the written word to the spoken language, giving it form and substance.
I adored this glorious feeling of alchemy, forming beautiful mysterious sounds with my mouth and changing tongues. It was my power.
Years later, I unknowingly took this power with me when I pursued Japanese studies at university. The floor fell out from under me, and like a child, I began from zero: new grammar structure, shaky primitive handwriting, a foreign system to express myself in bare, unsophisticated language. But there was a familiar prosody, no surprises of pronunciation irregularities, consistency I could cling to. My mouth obeyed these familiar sounds, out of muscle memory. I swam gently, easily, into the warm waters of a new tongue.
Later, I started learning Korean, and the sometimes sticky, sometimes fluttery R’s made sense, and I found myself capable of stretching my mouth to accommodate new vowel sounds. Idem for the French nasal vowels and throaty R’s.
With each language, my worldview has become more panoramic. What I thought was straightforward has become more nuanced and obscure. I have learned to see through eyes multiplied.
This is the intangible gift from my grandmother, who has never had the chance to travel abroad, whose arthritic body now hinders her, yet whose voice has traveled the globe with me. Her voice has flown through mine, painting a beautiful tinge to every language I speak.
Language is not a barrier, but the key to deconstructing walls, enabling us to exist in this world.