Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Norma S. Mata
English 100
Essay 3: Out-of-class
February 8, 2002

Family Language

In "Mother Tongue," Amy Tan describes how her mother's languages, Chinese and English, transpired around their relationship. In her writing, she describes her mother's language as being "broken," "fractured," or even "limited English." Tan used to feel embarrassed because of her mother's inability to speak correct English. Her mother's "limited" English made it difficult for other people to understand, and limited Tan's "...perception of her." She mentions, "English reflected the quality of what she had to say. That is, because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect." Her writing made me think of my own experiences with my father and daughter. My embarrassments encountered with my father's "broken" English and the difficulties my daughter has in trying to express herself in a second language.

One day, at age sixteen, my father needed one of his children to go with him to the bank and translate for him. He needed a loan and didn't speak the language well enough to be understood. His native language is Spanish, and often times he would try to speak English in his own way. He never asked for favors from anyone else other than his own children. He never asked or waited to see who would go with him; rather, when something needed to be done quickly and efficiently, he would tell us in a firm and loud voice. It made us feel obligated to immediately stand up and do what was indicated, or he would get on our case all the time. My father decided on taking me since I was the oldest of the family; therefore, I was the fortunate one.

As he was driving to the bank, I felt excited to be able to help my father in a very useful way, but also nervous. He started explaining what I needed to tell the banker. He needed a loan to be able to pay off his bills. He also needed to know how much he would qualify for, the interest rate, how many months it would take to pay off the loan, and any other information there was. This was my first time trying to translate something that I was not even familiar with; therefore, my knowledge of how the banking system worked or how to even say what my father needed in financial terminology was very minimal.

After my father explained everything and before arriving at the bank, I started to think of words that were going to be understandable. My head started spinning all over like a merry-go-round (around and around until it stops), except for me it had not yet stopped. The only words I knew very well were money and savings account. In my head I was trying to put words together to make understandable sentences for when I arrived at the bank. The words were there, but I could not put them together in sentences. The words money, months, and interest were my main words. As we were getting closer, I started to get more and more nervous. The thought of needing to know my English vocabulary very well, just made me think I should not even be there. As my mind was still spinning in circles and without noticing we had already arrived, my father said with a stern voice, " Ya llegamos y mas vale que entiendas y sepas explicar todo." It means, "We've arrived and you better understand and know how to explain everything." My father's stern voice made me feel obligated to understand and communicate very well to anyone inside the building.

As we entered the bank, we spoke to the bank teller. She then directed us to someone in the financing department, who was helping another person. As we were waiting for the lady in the financing department, my hands started sweating and my mind went blank. I could not remember those important words. Was it a savings account my father needed? Or was it a checking account? It was then that my father asked, " Que es lo que dice en aquel letrero?" which means, "What does it say on that sign?" As I was reading the sign and it mentioned something about low interest rates, on any kind of loan, my nervousness slowly floated away. It was then when I remembered the important words. I translated the information given on the sign which, concerned to the reason why we were there. The lady in the financing department finished with her customer, and then greeted us and told us to please have a seat in her office. As I started explaining the reason why we were there, my father started asking questions in his own "broken" English. He asked, "You how much money from me?" I translated this phrase in perfect English, "How much money will he be able to qualify for and how high will his interest be?" The lady was very helpful and said she would have to check his credit report, which would take a day for a response to come back. My father agreed to all that was explained. He gave the lady all his personal information, which was: name, address, phone number, social security number, savings account, checking account, rental information and other information required. He was then told to come back the following day.

The following day we both went back to the financing department. The lady that helped us the day before was out sick. A man in the same department was now helping us. He told us to have a seat in his office, and he would go get my father's credit report. When he came back he did not have a very satisfied look on his face. He started telling me that my father's credit was in very bad shape. He had several collection accounts and some late payments on credit cards. As I explained this to my father, he burst out with an angry voice, in his own "broken" English. He said, "You no good, my record good. I go to other bank. They give me money. Here no good. Me no credit card. Me cut credit card." He also used some strong Spanish words, which I am not going to even get into. His angry voice and his inability with the English language made me feel embarrassed and ashamed, to have a father who could not be understood or who could not even try to comprehend the society today. At the time, I felt like just hiding under the desk or leaving out the door. I knew I could not leave or he would chew my head off once we arrived home. His inability to speak correct English made me feel I could not hold my head up high and say, " My father has the ability of speaking two languages and has achieved something in life."

Now, at age 26, I am a parent with two daughters and realize that my father's language abilities are far more useful and important. In my youth I was an intelligent child, but also ignorant. My knowledge of the English language was far more important than to think of my father's own knowledge. He always gave us encouragement, love, trust, and most important, he showed us his knowledge in the Spanish language. My thoughts towards the difficulties encountered in speaking the English language were, "It will not happen to me, because English is constantly being taught in school." Now I know, no one is perfect in this society. We all have different abilities and ways of communicating. Some communicate in different languages such as, words, actions or even material stuff.

My oldest daughter, Angelica, is almost seven years old and is in first grade. I notice we both are struggling to write and speak the English language in a way that can be understood. Recalling my experiences with my own father, makes me think of Angelica and I. She's my little princess, whom I love very much. Her thoughts towards me are very important to my point of view; since, I do not wish for her to see me as I did my own father. I have a tendency to speak in a combination of languages, Spanish and English. For me this combination of language is called mixed language. Expressing your thoughts in English at a college level is difficult when you have two languages. It's frustrating, but at the same time challenging. My willingness to learn makes me put more effort into trying to write and speak English correctly at a college level. My encouragements are my daughters’ willingness to learn. I want them to be proud of all my achievements.

On January 14, 2002, I asked my daughter a question, like this: " Angelica me puedes traer the pencils please?" This should have been said correctly in either Spanish or English language. " Angelica me puedes traer los lapizes, porfavor?" or "Angelica, can you please bring me those pencils?" This might have sounded weird to you, but that is the mixed language I speak with almost all my family. My husband speaks more Spanish than English and tends to tell me not to use a combination of both languages with our daughters’, because it will make them more confused. Gradually, I have been trying to increase my English vocabulary and only speak our native language at home. Angelica has been writing in her journal since the start of this year, 2002. She still needs lots of help with grammar, spelling, punctuation and wording. For example a piece of her writing is written like this: " today I lirned abot Mars and it's Fun to lirn abot panets like thes are my faverit planit." I am sure you do understand what she is trying to say. As you can see she is struggling with the English language, but at the same time trying her best and not giving up. She has shown me that even though you may struggle in something you should just keep on trying and eventually you will achieve. Tan describes how language has power in "the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth." The strength of your language can show the way you feel about someone or something in real life, even in a difficulty situation. Angelica has a strength in her language both English and Spanish. She might not be a perfect grammatical writer, but at least she expresses her emotions as much as she can in her writing.

Now I am in college, a place where I had to start over again. After being out of school for seven years, I feel like I don't even know what I'm supposed to be doing. I think of all the frustrations I have as soon as I get an essay assignment, but also think of my daughter's encouragement. Our mixture of languages is also difficult at times -- the feeling of frustration when I can't say something in a complete sentence without the need to add another language. At college I speak only English, which is helping me improve my vocabulary. At home we have a special rule: whoever speaks in English at home will have a penalty of having to write the Spanish alphabet or write fifty sentences of, "No hablare inglÚs en la casa." The person who gets the least amount of penalties gets to do something special on Saturday. Speaking your native language at home does improve your vocabulary, and gives you more knowledge of your surroundings and of different cultures.

Having two languages is very important in today's society. I agree with Tan's idea that "Language spoken in the family, especially in immigrant families which are more insular, plays a large role in shaping the language of the child." At home my father never spoke to us in English; rather, only in Spanish. He taught us to read and write in Spanish, and the teachers in school taught us reading and writing skills in English. My father told us how today's society needed to have bilingual people in any work place. His views towards our education and the ability to speak two languages were very strong. He wanted us to achieve in any work place and never be ashamed to speak our native language. During my youth, I felt ashamed of his inability to speak correct English, but now I am very proud of his languages. He may not speak correct English, but at least tries to express himself as much as he can by movements or showing his emotions along with his language. His knowledge in the Spanish language gave me an opportunity to achieve something in today's society. I have been able to use both of my languages, Spanish and English, in any work place, school and with my own family. I hope that one day my father and daughter will read this essay, and know how grateful I am to have them both as inspirations in my life today.


Copyright 2002
Norma Mata


Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA