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Opinion: Some words feel truer in Spanish

My earliest relationship with language was defined by rules. As an immigrant who came to this country from Peru at age 4, I spent half of my days in kindergarten occupied with learning the rules of the English language. There was the tricky inconsist

  • Apr 21 2024
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Opinion: Some words feel truer in Spanish
Opinion: Some words feel truer in Spanish

My earliest relationship with language was defined by rules. As an immigrant who came to this country from Peru at age 4, I spent half of my days in kindergarten occupied with learning the rules of the English language. There was the tricky inconsistency of pronunciation to navigate and, once I learned to speak it, the challenge of translating what I’d learned into reading skills.

At home, my mom would often create games to help my sister and me preserve our Spanish and improve our grammar. Driving around our neighborhood in Miami, she’d point at a traffic light, hold up four fingers and say, “Se-ma-fo-roon which syllable do you put the accent?”

Each language had its defined space: English in school, Spanish at home. But as my parents became more fluent (and my sister and I more dominant) in English, the boundaries became blurred. Being bilingual empowered us to break barriers beyond the rules and definitions attached to words. Some things were simply untranslatable, because they spoke to this new space we were living in — within, between and around language. We were making a new home here, same as so many immigrants who end up shaping language as much as it shapes us.

It became evident as the phrase “Cómo se dice?” or “How do you say?” became a constant in my home. Sometimes it’d be my parents who asked, “How do you say” followed by a word like “sobremesa” or “ganas.” It seemed simple enough in theory, but proved nearly impossible for us to translate without elaborating using full sentences or phrases. After all, to have a word to describe a long conversation that keeps you at the table and extends a meal, you’d have to value the concept enough to name it. Some ideas are so embedded in Latin American and Spanish cultures that they exist implicitly. Of course “ganas” can be something you feel but also give, and be at once more tame yet more powerful than “desire.” (If you know, you know.)

Other times, it’d be my sister and I who were curious about a word’s Spanish counterpart. Was there really no differentiating in Spanish between the fingers (dedos) on our hands and those on our feet we call toes? When we wanted to say we were excited about something, the word “emocionada” seemed to fall short of capturing our specific, well, emotion. Sometimes we would blank on a word. But sometimes we would find that the perfect word isn’t necessarily in the language we’re speaking.

What I’m describing, of course, has its own word: code switching. The act of shifting from one language or dialect to another, particularly based on social context, is often framed as something that so-called minorities do to fit into more mainstream spaces. It’s true that code switching can be a form of assimilation, a way of shielding ourselves from the prejudices rooted in racism, classism and xenophobia that can arise when we freely express our culture and language in spaces not designed to embrace them. But what I seldom see discussed is how code switching isn’t solely a reactionary response to feeling unwelcome. Within our own communities, it can signal comfort and belonging.

Take the Spanish word “maleta,” or “suitcase” in English. This year, I was at a writing conference and met up with two Mexican American authors, one of whom brought her suitcase to the venue because she had already checked out of the hotel. We walked the halls and offered to help with her maleta, making several jokes and references to it, but never once using the word “suitcase,” despite speaking mainly in English.

This was an entirely natural and unspoken decision. There are some words that simply feel truer in Spanish than they do in English. I call these home words and heart words because I associate them with the place I most grew up using them: at home, among family. Though the words might share a literal definition with their translation, one version carries emotional depth that enriches its meaning. To code-switch this way among friends implies we share not only a language but an intimate understanding of where we come from.

A suitcase is for clothes and possessions when someone travels, but to me, a maleta meant family had arrived from Peru, carrying flavors, textures and memories of my birthplace. Language is rooted in context, which is another way of saying that language is driven by memory. In this way, what we do or don’t choose to translate is another way of telling stories about our past.

Last year, a study on the specific way that Miamians use direct Spanish translations to form English phrases called the practice an emerging dialect. It’s a form of borrowing between languages that results in what is known as calques. For decades, expressions like “get down from the car” and “super hungry,” which are translated from Spanish, have made their way into regional speech, even in the case of non-Spanish speakers.

When I shared the article on social media, my DMs were flooded by friends and family — not only in Miami but also in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and in Southern California — who joked that they’ve been using these phrases since they were children, and their parents had, too. The novelty was not in their usage but in their validation (whether or not we sought that validation). My friends and I grew up being told to speak a certain way and respect the rules of both languages. We, in turn, didn’t so much break the rules as we simply played with them, swirling bits of English and Spanish together until it resembled something new yet familiar, our fingerprints proudly planted in its mess.

This is one of my greatest joys as a writer. I love language not only for all it can do but also for all it can’t, and all the space it leaves in the gaps for creation. It is empowering that something as supposedly fixed as the meaning of a word or phrase is actually alive and evolving. It means we don’t have to lose parts of ourselves to assimilation; we can expand language to include the full breadth of our experiences.

Words are just sounds and letters until we collectively give them meaning through story. When we use language to connect, it’s one of the most beautiful things that makes us human.

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the forthcoming children’s book “A Maleta Full of Treasures” (“La Maleta de Tesoros”). This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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