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The Kansas City Star

Languages Connect Speakers To Culture


2 March 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Kansas City Star. All rights reserved.

My uncle told me that the Spanish equivalent for the American expression "like" was "este." For instance, a teenager might say in English, "My teacher ... like, uh ... is so insane." In Spanish, that same teenager would say, "Mi professor ... este ... muy loco."

This small grammatical lesson helped connect me to Spanish, a language I never fully learned. My parents spoke Spanish but not in the house, worried my brothers and I would have problems if we started school knowing more Spanish than English. As we grew older, our cultural heritage and its influences became increasingly intangible and out of reach.

Now, years later, when I overhear couples speaking Spanish, I'll catch one of them saying, "este" and I'll think "like." I'll sit and wait and listen some more until I understand enough of their conversation to jump in.

My uncle was an actor living in New York City. He would listen to tape recordings of interviews he had given arts reporters and critique the sound of his voice. He noticed when he mumbled, when he spoke in a monotone and when his comments lacked precision. He encouraged me to pause between words when I didn't know how to continue a thought rather than stumble around as he sometimes overheard himself do with like, uh and er.

My mother had always hounded my brothers and me to speak well but it never sunk in until I listened to my uncle's tapes. Her voice sounded very much like my uncle's, deep and clear. She struck every vowel of each word that rolled off her tongue. My uncle enjoyed imitating her.

"Ohhh, Joe," he'd say, dropping his voice and dragging out each syllable as if it were taffy.

Their mother died when she was still very young. She was raised in Puerto Rico by her father and a Jamaican-born nanny, Amy, who learned English as a girl from British families in Kingston. When she spoke English, my mother's voice carried strains of the British Empire and the rhythms of the Caribbean as conveyed to her by Amy's accent.

She often recalled the time my oldest brother came home from the fourth grade and said he lost his "kep."

"Kep. What's a kep?" my mother said.

Finally, it dawned on her that he had lost his "cap." Somewhere along the line he had begun speaking like some of his friends. My mother did her best to resist the corrupting influences around us. She corrected our speech endlessly.

"Gonna? What's ‘gonna'? It's ‘going to.' Now sit up straight."

"Haveta? What's ‘haveta'? It's ‘have to.' Don't slouch."

"Gotta? What's ‘gotta'? It's ‘got to.' Tuck in your shirt."

I never had the opportunity to see my uncle in a play, but when I listened to recordings of him on stage, I noticed that unlike in his interviews, each word he spoke had a special cadence. His voice was enriched by the subtleties of proper enunciation, and flowed with symphonic power especially when he spoke a monologue from Shakespeare and other classics.

My uncle's analysis of his voice inspired me and I resolved to improve my own slipshod speaking habits.

I felt an assurance I hadn't experienced before when I paused between thoughts as my uncle suggested, collected myself and continued without uttering "like." I thought more about what I would say and how I would say it. Words became chess pieces. Every move counted. I sought meaning and accuracy in the words I considered. Then I made my decision and enunciated the chosen words with careful deliberation. I defined myself by the clarity of my speech. I was frustrated when I couldn't find the right words. I chose silence in those moments and waited for the proper words to emerge.

My cousin, like my uncle, spoke three languages flawlessly. He was raised in Mexico and although he was educated in the states and had traveled the world he always considered himself Mexican. When he talked other than in Spanish, people who didn't know him thought he was a native speaker of whatever language he was using at the time. Sometimes when he became excited and could not talk fast enough to keep up with his thoughts, he would leap from English to Spanish to French to English and back to Spanish again.

"All these languages," he'd say, cutting himself off. "It gets confusing."

Then he would begin again in Spanish, rooting himself in the language of his birth.

Recently, I spent a few months in Kabul, Afghanistan, as a reporter covering the war. I learned enough Dari, the language of northern Afghanistan, to get by. When I left, I flew to Honduras to report on human rights violations. I was offered coffee at a hotel the night I arrived in Tegucigalpa, the capital.

"Nay, tasha core," I said in Dari, clipping my words in a guttural voice like the Afghans I knew. "No, thank you."

I paused, startled by the hotel clerk's complete lack of comprehension. Then I realized the mistake I'd made.

"Pardon," I said after a moment. "No, gracias."

I have traveled widely but have not spent much time in any one place. I am able to wander the landscape of several languages by clinging to the few words I understand.

Wherever I land and to anyone who will listen, I speak correctly and with the proper accent the few words I know of that country's language. I pause, weigh the leap I must make between making myself understood and uttering incomprehensible nonsense. The silence lengthens. I notice the awkward smiles. I balance on a pinhead of unease, afraid I might tumble into the mush of "uh ..."

Finally, I say, "Good morning," enunciating each word with a clarity I feel for that greeting, but not for the language as a whole.

My listener responds with unadorned simplicity that any beginner would understand.


I regain my balance and prepare to make another verbal jump into the linguistic unknown. Slowly, I establish a foothold. Like a mountain climber clinging to rock for support, face pressed against the cold granite, I feel alive and part of something.

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