During his first years as a citizen, my Dad, a native Guatemalan, worked hard to become fluent in English. My mom translated a lot of conversations, forms, and birthday cards. Soon, though, he picked up the language. Immersed in English at his job, in the home, and on TV, he had to sink or swim. This was Iowa, 1968. Lots of corn, no tortillas, I like to say. Dad swam.
An unexpected thing about that Spanish knowledge: it served him well. Not only from a brain-connectivity standpoint (which studies say is significant for bilinguals), but in terms of learning high-level English. Because Latin underlies Spanish, the complicated words of the SAT, the university, and the highly-educated came easily to him.
Where an English-speaking student struggled to memorize a medical word, for example, my dad already knew its meaning. What does cardiac have to do with the word heart? Nothing, in our Anglo-Saxon-based English. In Spanish, heart is corazón. What does pulmonary have to do with the word lung? For me, nothing. In Spanish, lung is pulmón.
I’d see a native English speaker search for the “fancy” word to complete a sentence. “I love beef,” an Iowan might say. “I’m what you call a . . . Um . . . ” Carnivore! My dad supplied the word readily. Carne is Spanish for meat. Another person might say, “I’m glad I wasn’t taken to jail, you know . . .” Incarcerated! Jail = carcel in Spanish = easy for Dad.
Shakespeare’s plays challenge even English speakers, but here Dad found his Spanish useful again. Many words that prompt me to search for a footnote give my dad no trouble. Act II of As You Like It uses this line: “If this uncouth forest yield anything savage, I will either be food for it or bring it to be food for thee.” Here, savage means wild, as in a wild animal. My ear doesn’t hear it that way, but a Spanish speaker hears salvaje behind savage, and salvaje means wild. Hamlet‘s Act I includes the phrase “Nature, crescent, does not grow alone.” As my mind goes to “crescent moon,” a Spanish speaker’s thoughts turn to crecer, which means to grow. That is exactly the meaning here. Shakespeare’s vocabulary drips with Latin. Spanish speakers take it in stride.
Shakespeare’s inverted word order trips us up too. But Spanish’s word order is more flexible than English’s. While this sounds mixed up to my ear, “Only there are three apples,” it makes a correct Spanish sentence, “Solo hay tres manzanas.” When Shakespeare writes “Away from the light steals home my heavy son,” in Romeo and Juliet, I rearrange it to “My heavy son steals home, away from the light.” Spanish speakers can reference constructions like “Me gusta la manzana,” which is “It pleases me the apple.”
Plenty of folks worried about my dad when he stepped off the plane into an English-speaking world. Turns out, he carried knowledge that helped him go to college and graduate Cum Laude, a Latin phrase that he, more than I, readily understands.