Latina Heritage

Dad’s Spanish: Secret Stair to High-level English

corn-on-the-cob-2083529_640.jpgDuring 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.

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Writing Tips

Exercise for Finding Your Voice

Photo: My kitty, Zoey, ponders voice.

Last time we talked about voice = word choice and angle of vision. This time, we’ll apply those ideas in writing. Grab the nearest piece of paper or open a “note” on your screen of choice!

  • Step 1: Describe the night sky in the voice of a child.child looking up
    Get into child mind here. The word choices for children will include balls and snow cones and made up words like “splooshy.” Children don’t compare a star to a diode, but a piece of glitter. Angle of vision for a child includes his/her inexperience and limited knowledge, priorities such as safety or fun, and attitudes such as wonderment, confusion, or fear. GIVE YOURSELF FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE.
    Ready, set, go!


  • Step 2: Describe the night sky in the voice of a cowboy, scientist, or artist.
    Your choice! Again, use vocabulary specific to that identity, word choices appropriate to the personality. Take the attitude and angle of vision of this person. Is she nostalgic? Analytical? Dreamy? Make each sentence convey the individuality of the speaker. GIVE YOURSELF ANOTHER FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE.
    Ready, set, go!
  • Step 3: Notice that you started building a character in your paragraphs. You already have a sense of the person’s values, wishes, loves, and fears. You could list traits of this person, describing him as generous or stingy, contented or dissatisfied, etc. How do you know this about him? Because you created a definite voice.

For fiction, screenwriting, or persona poems, the writer gives each character a distinct voice of the kind we just practiced. Distinct voices keep readers from confusing Tia Rosa with Abuela Christina. But what is your author voice? You may try on different hats as you write your characters, but you still have a narrator’s voice that is your own. This brings us to . . .

  • Step 4: Make a list of words that describes the YOU on the page.
    More specifically:blank-photo
    a) Write a short sentence that states two of your priorities or values, such as “Follow your heart and always wear clean underwear.”
    b) List a trait that you want your writing to have, such as liveliness.
    c) Write down three roles that you play in this world, such as brother, pianist, and basketball fan.
    d) Write down two traits of yours that stand out to those who know you.
    Now you’re ready for the final challenge!
  • Step 5: Describe a night sky in your own voice.
    TIPS: Bring to life the person you said you are in step four. Give yourself free reign to be unique. As author Cynthia Heimel says,

“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth.”

Write in a way that shows your angle of vision and uses your unique word choices. GIVE YOURSELF FOUR MINUTES TO WRITE. Go!

How does it feel? Are you brilliant yet?

Here’s a last bit of inspiration: It turns out that the word grammar derives from an Old Scottish word for sorcery. In fact a grammary is a book of spells in Old French. So when you arrange words on the page, you’re making a kind of magic. You’re conjuring a fictional spell. The reader longs to be under that spell from first page to last. Your pen is your wand. And as Olivander says to Harry Potter,

“The wand chooses the wizard.”

The pen chooses you. Channel your magic. Channel your voice!

girl reading magic book

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