The Insurmountable Wall

Second Language Acquisition – Part II

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi

Second language acquisition is not only about language. It is about the countless walls that the language itself creates. Spanish and English are like oil and water – they don’t mix. One deals with consistent sounds that can be relied upon without significant variables while the other constant exceptions to sounds and rules. I remember the first time that I saw the words to, too, and two. The teacher put them on the board and pronounced each. ¡¿Qué?! What did she say? No, no, no, how could they all sound like ‘¿tú?’

My dominant left side of the brain quickly addressed the linguistic logic required. ’T’ sound followed by selecting my trusted a, e, i, o, ‘u’ sound and voila! – “Tú” Easy, right? I was not even close. Oh my! The “to, too, two” and their amigos kept on coming like a tsunami – threw, through – new, knew – mail, male – bass, base – plain, plane – genes, jean – dear, deer – dye, die – write, rite, wright . . . RIGHT?!

¿¿¿¿¿¡¡¡¡¡ _____________ !!!!!?????

The deluge was relentless – homonyms, homophones, homographs, heteronyms – does anyone have a cognate handy? But the actual phonetical sounds were not the only barrier. The coordination of tongue, mouth, teeth, lips, nose, palate and throat would require serious re-education and practice. Babbling turned into annoying accents for others. “What did you say?” “Would you please repeat that!” … again, again and again. The third and fourth times with embarrassment. It was like learning to walk again with weights strapped to those boots that we were always being reminded to pull up. Playground, social language began to take hold, but academic language remained a couple of years behind through adulthood.

My first formal schooling in the USA took place roughly 18 months after we arrived. Education was put on pause as we followed parental employment from NY, to Boston, toDetroit. The registration day was memorable as a Latina mother and school secretary, who did not speak another language, tried to communicate. She followed the SLS method. She spoke Slowwwwly, LOUDLY, speaking convoluted Sign language. As always, I was a frightened observer – a captive audience. I was taken to a room and provided a piece of paper and pencil. Instructions were repeated in the same Slooooow, LOUD voice, with an occasional Sign – as if speaking slower and louder would result in comprehension.

My mind was blank as I was still dealing with leaving my mother’s side – the safe space she always provided. Now I was alone with a stranger speaking a strange language with authority. The pieces of paper were filled with multiple choice questions. After what seemed to be an eternity, the secretary reentered and noticed that I had not moved beyond my name and was crying in silence – the kind of weeping when tears gush down an expressionless face – staring in trauma. Tears flowing without knowing yet their origin. But I knew that they needed to flow. In retrospect, what I was feeling was degradation, ignominy, humiliation . . . alone . . . to deal with the confusion without answers . . . without solutions.

The result was that, like others who had taken such tests, we were placed in Special Education. An experience that I would in time come to view from other perspectives. As far as my parents were involved, this was a time of ongoing frustrating confusion. But being in school, regardless of whether the opportunity had worth, was good enough for now. The message from them was always crystal clear – “We provide the sacrifices, the substance, the roof, the courage, the love. You go to school.” So I did. Now I realize what a great deal it was. Especially those sacrifices, the courage, the love. God did they love me!

Those days in SE are imprinted. SE teachers dealing with countless challenges always multitasking – always pro-actively finding solutions. They were truly SPECIAL – HOLY.

Some of the SE teachers suspected that we did not belong but they did not have answers for us. They tried to provide some dignity best they could. In turn, they relied on our compassion and empathy.

We became willing silent assistants. So proud to take notes to the office. So proud to clean and file. There were always chores to do and we responded as we had been taught to do at home.

Those days also provided countless lessons of what it meant to be oppressed and suppressed. Simple things, like going to a school assembly, pep rally, holiday concert but always separated. Simple things, like the looks and comments as we walked down the hall by fellow students who did not, nor could not understand. Simple things, like watching from a window recess wanting to be part of that kick ball game – playing tag with freedom.

Separation was the invisible wall. No one needed to build it – it was always there.