Learning languages is an exciting experience. Getting to know new words and expressions, to learn about a different culture, it opens your mind to a whole new world. But can the same be said about your own language?

Sure, there are always new words or fun facts you can find but other than that there is little novelty to it. Not much left to discover and be excited about. Or is there?

Forget about grammar or vocabulary, I´m talking about the purpose behind the word, where does it come from and, more important, what does it say about you?

I started asking these questions about 3 years ago, when I began teaching Spanish. Never before had I taught at any level (nor ever wanted to) but I was looking to challenge myself. And if there was ever a subject I could teach, it was this, having spent about 30 years of my life speaking the language on a daily basis.

So, I gave it a shot. My first class, aone-on-one session with an Austrian student who had little knowledge of Spanish, was truly exciting, really entertaining, and kind of a mess. Even though the class went well, there were many doubts I was not able to clarify. Questions that went beyond the textbook and that even I, as a native speaker never even asked myself. So that night, my student and I both left the classroom with more questions than answers in our heads.

As time went by, I got more classes and before I noticed, I got caught planning several lessons and doing research on topics I thought I knew. However, with every new student and new question, I discovered how little did I know about my own language; why does that word have so many meanings? Why is that male instead of female? How come the word for “mother” can be used in the sentence “I’m going to kick your ass”?

And finally, the eyeopener. During an A1 class with a German student, I was explaining to him the verb “Haber” which is the one we use in order to say “there is”. However, one of the most common uses of this verb is “hay que + verb”like “Hay que trabajar” which can be roughly translated to “work has to be done”.

– I don’t understand it – he said.

I tried translating it, but his response was: – No, I can understand the sentence, but I don’t know what it means.

What followed was my explanation of how we use this expression in order to tell someone (an individual or a group) that they must get something done, either right away or at any given time, like there is something unavoidable about it (kind of like, “in this life, we have to work”).

– So, why don’t you say that? “you have to work,” or “we have to work”?

– Well, because we Mexicans don’t like confrontation. We are not direct to one another because we might get offended. It doesn’t have to do with grammar, it has to do with our culture.

That was it. No further questions.

I did have some questions though. Quite a bit, actually. I never thought a regular, everyday expression would have something to tell me about my culture. What else was there to pick up on? What other traits of my people, and thus, myself, were hidden within the language? As if I didn’t know my native tongue, I started to study.

It was an astonishing trip. My language, the one thing that never occurred to me had anything more to say than the words that came out of my mouth, was helping me discover my true nature and, therefore, the true nature of my culture and countrymen. That was the first of many discoveries; indeed, the use of indirect language is well extended because it is true, we don’t like confrontation. In Mexican Spanish we have insults that can be tracked all the way back to the colonial period which are related directly to the fact of being a conquered people. And, the way we use expressions like “ahorita”, “al rato” or “ya mero” puzzles every foreigner that comes across them because it reflects how we understand time aside from other countries.

That sets us apart and speaks volumes about our identity. Not in vain we have 3/4 of a continent unified by one language and at the same time this language is not spoken the same way in every country, or even in every region within these countries. Similarities and particularities living together seamlessly.

Language is a direct reflection of who we are: what we say, how we say it, even where and when, those are all answers to why. And that is true all the way to an individual level; there are not two people who talk exactly alike. It is part of our personality and our culture; our very own anthropological fingerprint.

To this date, I continue to learn. Teaching challenges me every day to know my language better and therefore, know myself better. Though I might not be exploring different worlds, I am getting a deeper understanding of my own. And that for sure is something exciting.

 

Nombre: Arturo Cruz Herrera

Nacionalidad: Mexicano

Profesión: Profesor de español y diseñador

“To me language is about understanding. And the more you understand the more humane you are.”

New word Explication
fun fact  a funny or entertaining information
one-on-one sesscion private or individual lesson
eyeopener sudden realization
astonishing surprising, amazing
insult offending words
seamless without interruption
anthropological relating to study of humans
fingerprint mark left by fingertip