Lies My English Teachers Taught Me

For the past week I’ve been in Mexico with my fiance Harel. It’s been delightful spending time with him, but also stressful since money issues always tend to creep up on us (making it even more important that we reach our GoFundMe goals).

Today I’m not talking about money, though, but rather language.

Part of our financial strains are due to Harel’s recently transitioning from one job to another. He’s completed his TKT English certification course, and while he takes the certification test on August 8, in his new job he’ll be teaching English to business professionals. So on Tuesday, I was able to join Harel in a workshop his new job provided on the proper place for a native language when teaching a second language. While I’m not a teacher of language, I am a student of Spanish, and listening to a dozen teachers discuss differences between Spanish and English, my mind tried to take these challenges and generalize them.

This isn’t a post so much about language as it is about how language shapes our thinking. As I learned about word order in my first Spanish class last summer, I was taught that Spanish, unlike English, places the adjective after the noun.

On the one hand, this may merely be a nuance of language; probably, it is, for I am neither a linguist nor a psychologist and I’m attempting to draw psychological conclusions from language structure. On the other hand, maybe there’s more.

In English, when we say “blue backpack,” we first describe the characteristics of an object before we get to the object itself. Visualizing the meaning word by word, first I see a swath of blue, and then this amorphous shape coagulates into a backpack.

On the contrary, in Spanish, when I say mochila azul, “backpack blue,” the first image that forms is the object itself: somehow I’m witness to the essence of a backpack, the multiple pockets, the straps, the zippers–only after I’ve touched this physical object does it start to take detail and become blue.

In English, we preference details over what they describe: We preference a person’s white or black or brown skin over the fact that we’re first seeing a person. We pay more attention to where people place their genitals (if they do at all) before we realize we’re still looking at a whole person.

Am I suggesting English is a racist or heterosexist language? No, I suppose I’m not, and without any formal training in linguistics, I’m not sure if a language can even be either of these things (though I know it can be sexist and cis-sexist in how we gender both people and professions into a rigid, unbreakable binary that doesn’t actually exist). Rather, I think English, as it shapes our thinking, is a prejudiced language: It forces us to first consider distinguishing characteristics rather than essential essences. If we go about all our lives categorizing backpacks as blue and black and yellow and green or pink, then we lose a connection to the fact–the reality–that they are all simply different manifestations of a single wholeness: a backpack.

And if it can happen with backpacks, why can’t it happen with anything else?

On the topic of gender, it was only two or three days ago when I shook my head and told Harel, whenever he meets my trans friends, I’ll have to warn them that he isn’t intentionally misgendering them, but that he simply confuses “him” and “her” all the time (I kid you not: he might refer to the same person as both in a matter of one or two sentences). Today, at this workshop, I learned why: In Spanish, su means both “his” and “hers,” so a gender binary has been abstracted away from the language–a distinction absent but surely desired in English. I don’t know if this nuance has made Spanish-speaking countries more progressive toward transgender equality than other countries, but I do know Argentina has perhaps the world’s most inclusive transgender laws in the world, so maybe it does.

Finally, while we worked together on a worksheet identifying common mistakes in English made by native Spanish speakers, a more poignant difference emerged. In Spanish, if you’re afraid, you say Tengo miedo, literally “I have fear”; but in English, you simply say, “I’m afraid.” Instead of fear being something I possess, I am that fear.

A native Spanish speaker told us how he knows the literal meaning of expressing emotions in Spanish, but he questioned, holding out his hand and grasping the air, “Where do I even hold that feeling?” But as someone who’s fighting against depression, it’s obvious to me where that emotion is held: In my bones, in my heart, in my stomach, between my ears. Except in English, when I say “I’m depressed,” that feeling isn’t simply something I can let go of, a possession I can disown, but a fundamental part of my entire being: I am depressed. That depression is me.

The same structure is used when declaring your age: In English I’d say “I’m 26,” but in Spanish it would become, Tengo vientiséis años, literally, “I have 26 years.” Again, we aren’t reduced to being a single detail of who we are, but rather we recognize that age is simply another descriptor of our fundamental personhood.

I can’t say that native Spanish speakers experience better mental health than English speakers or that, by age 26, they don’t feel old already, but what I can say is that, for me, it’s a welcome change to see the parts of myself I want to improve as mere possessions that can be replaced rather than irremovable parts of my identity. I may have depression, I may have prejudices, I may have fears, but they are not who I am, and though it’ll take work to let them go, I know there is a part of me free from all of these things, the unhindered person I strive to become, a person already present but burdened by things I have been given, rather than held back by the things I am.

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