by María L. Trigos-Gilbert

A blank paper freaks a writer’s hands and eyes. This month the blankness of my screen has caused me to rethink time after time the content of my article. This time I want to chat with you about something that’s itching me. You may think, “María, and what’s that?” Okay, let me talk to you about it. Actually, let me share a secret with you, but just between us. I’m Latin. Thus my native language is Spanish. It shouldn’t strike you since most Latin Americans speak Spanish. Of course, if you study my family tree, you may find out that I’m part Latin and part Spaniard. I’m the product of a Venezuelan mother and a Spaniard father. By the way, allow me to use the word “proud.” You got it. I’m mighty proud to be a Latin Spaniard, an American Spaniard. Now, let’s start the business of this article, and that’s grammar vs. message. Let’s go to the next paragraph to have these sentences a little more evenly divided. Shall we? Follow me.

Grammar Crimes
Let’s hit the target with some examples. When I first came to the United States of America, I paid close attention to the usage of the English language. I heard the North American people’s chitchats, and without intention I imitated what I had heard in different opportunities. Thus I was like a child trying to walk her first steps. Time passed, and I started to differentiate the correct use of each word. At times I failed while some other times I succeeded. I did all those things by trial and error, and the errors seemed to multiply within seconds. Nevertheless, my personality helped me because I’m not a shy person. Thanks to God. Would you imagine if I were to be shy? I can’t imagine such a thing, and a lot less my relatives and friends. When I committed a grammar crime, I wondered how much time I had to pay in jail. Lucky me, I wasn’t put behind bars.

Why wasn’t I put behind bars if I kept committing grammar crimes during my first steps through the English language? I have a hypothesis, and that’s grammar vs. message. A person may not use the correct words or in the correct order, but this individual may be understood by the message’s content. For instance, a student may write an essay in red. This is to say that the essay’s grammar needs revision, but the same essay’s content is promising. What shall we do? Should we give him a zero? In my opinion, this resolution is quite drastic. Of course, we can give this student some grammar recommendations because we want the student’s well-being. Now, this situation takes place in a classroom setting, but outside the classroom life tends to be a lot more demanding. If coworkers and neighbors don’t understand you, they will get inpatient. What can you do in this case? There are some possibilities: You can try to communicate once again using different words to say the same thing, or you can talk in your own language, sit back, and see what happens.

If you see some smoke coming out of your coworker’s head or your neighbor’s head when you speak in your native language, don’t despair. They are not mad at you. This may be that they are trying to process those foreign words. Give them some time, eat some popcorn, drink some Coke while you wait for their responses. I recommend you to give them the same time that it took you to learn English. You may think, “But María, it took me a year”. Okay, in that case, I think it will be better if you try to polish your English. In the end, you have to keep in mind that they may not be interested in learning a foreign language. Even more you and I are foreigners here, thus it’s our task to speak English. This is their land, their home. You and I are guests, and let’s not forget this “small” detail.” If we forget this detail, we don’t have to worry. Usually there is someone to remind us. Most of the time this reminder takes place during a mild confrontation about who is right or wrong about this or that. Go figure.

Message Can Overlap the Grammar
When I started to read the Bible during my teenager years, I Corinthians 13 : 11-12 was and still is very appealing to me. “When I was a child, I TALKED like a child, and I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. ‘When’ I became a ‘man,’ I put childish ways behind me.” Nowadays, I would say that I think like a woman since I’m not longer considered a child. Thus, because I think like a woman, I would change a few words in this NIV version. I would change the words, “when” and “man.” I prefer BUT or AND instead of “when.” I would use ADULT instead of “man.” You ask, “María, what in the mere heck is this craziness?” Dear, sit back and enjoy the ride before you take a hike.

This proves that we need time before we can fully comprehend a foreign language. Our understanding, usage, and vocabulary have to grow before we start criticizing anything and everything. Otherwise, we make fools of ourselves, and that isn’t cute. Ouch. My husband suffers ninety-nine percent of the time when we watch movies. “Honey, did you notice he said, ‘she don’t’?” My husband looks at the ceiling and says something very profound, “Oh boy, what a crime.” Now, do you see? We can obtain the message if we make use of the powerful motor that’s in our head. You got it that’s called gray matter in the skull. Some people use it, and some people choose to preserve it in a stinky green liquid like pickles. It’s one’s choice. Content can replace grammar when we know for sure that our interlocutor is making a tremendous effort to be understood.

An Italian Gesture
A coworker told me a nice story that happened to him in his last trip to Italy. There he was in Italy without being able to pronounce a single word in Italian. He carried an Italian hand pocket book for travelers, but he was afraid of his unavoidable mistakes. He can speak Latin. Thus he thought that Italians understood Latin. Sad to say it, but he was wrong. He tried four times to buy a weekly bus ticket speaking in Latin. The saleswoman gave him the look of his life. He started to pay tributes to the hot Italian summer in Rome; he was sweating full buckets after she gave him a super penetrating look. Nervously he opened his backpack to find his Italian book; then he thought, “Well, let me try some French.” She was more puzzled than she was before his Latin attempt. Once again he tried something new before he opened his Italian book. He spoke to her in English, and by that time the woman was getting tired of this “gringo.” Finally, he opened the Italian book, looked up words and sentences. Then and only then the woman understood what this young man was trying to tell her. She gave him the weekly bus ticket with a genuine smile on her face. He told me, “María, I got the message. Nothing can replace a person’s native language. That woman was so proud of me when I tried to speak in her language. I wish you could have seen her happiness”.

There is a lesson for us to learn. We have to accept foreigners’ attempts when they struggle to speak our language. It may not sound right. It may sound awkward, but I can assure you they are giving us their best. Don’t you think they want to be understood? Don’t you think they feel embarrassed when their messages don’t get across? You bet! Even more they want to enjoy the movies that you watch, they want to enjoy the things that cause you laughter. They may appear to be different. Yes, they are different, but they are still human beings. Let’s give people a chance to understand and to be understood. It requires great courage to speak a foreign language, and it requires patience to listen. Some individuals won’t listen if they sense the tiniest accent coming out of the mouth of the speaker. Once again this is a matter of choice, to receive or to reject. Let’s put it this way: Your child wraps a gift for you, but the wrapping has many corrugations. There you are in front of your child and the gift. What should you say? “Dear, dear, one doesn’t give a gift so badly wrapped.” If we express ourselves in this manner, we will sound like street jerks. A more reasonable person would say, “Oh, you are so sweet.” You may want to add a tender “thank you.”

Hear Me Out
There four things that must be considered when one learns a foreign language. We have think about content, grammar, and message. As you may have noticed, I have listed three instead of listing four. Thus what’s number four? Accent is number four, and it can be the most problematic. My father’s accent is quite strong if we want to use words like “soft” and “strong.” Wherever my father goes around Caracas, his accent sounds very distinctive. Venezuelans can notice that this guy is Spaniard for the way he talks and for his appearance. Most Latin Americans don’t pronounce the letter “z.” Let’s give an example: The word “zapato” means shoe in English. This Spanish word starts with a “z,” and most Latin Americans don’t pronounce the letter “z,” whether at the beginning of a word or at the middle. Spaniards make a clear distinction for the letter “z” and the letter “s.” Allow me to show you another example, “casa” meaning house, vs. “caza” meaning hunting. Thus my father’s phonetics give him away at all times. In Venezuela is not an insult to call people by their nationality; thus his friends and my mother’s relatives call him, “El español,” meaning “the Spaniard.”

Of course, you may be wondering, “María, but I thought that Latin America and Spain spoke the same language, Spanish”. Allow me to answer your question: Yes and no. Yes, people in Spain speak Spanish. Nevertheless, Spain has some other dialects that we must take into consideration. Those dialects are Andalusian, Basque, and Galician. My father’s dialect is Galician, and it’s very similar to Spanish. Galician was the poetic language in the very beginning of Spain as a nation. Galician has remained a very used language by its people. I used to lived in Galicia. There, without intention, my Venezuelan accent had changed. For instance, in my last trip to Caracas I took a cab to go to a friend’s house. The traffic was jammed. The driver and I started a chitchat about this and that; then with a big smile on his face he asked me, “where are you from?” I was a bit perplexed, but he became more perplexed than I when I answered him, “from Caracas.” I guess that my situation hasn’t improved since I have been living in the United States for six and a half years. My accent in English sounds very Latin. Some people have told me that it sounds “very strong.” What can I say? Take it or leave while I fix it!

Accent & Personality
I believe one’s accent has a lot do with one’s personality. A person with a soft personality tends to speak softly and makes timed pauses before the next word comes out. If you observe this individual’s handwriting, you will notice that it matches the person’s accent. Thus accent agrees with personality. If we flip the coin, we can see that a strong character agrees with one’s strong accent. The same “rule” applies in this type of strong character’s handwriting. Of course, we can ask ourselves questions like the following: Does the individual’s personality shape his accent? Or do his surroundings shape those three, accent, handwriting, and personality? I don’t support absolute theories; thus I take everything into consideration. We can’t isolate a human being from his or her surroundings (the Earth planet). Surroundings can intensify or reduce body measure, coloration, demeanor, discoloration, and food consumption (liquid and solid). For instance, Bolivians have a wider chest due to the size of their lungs. Their legs are shorter and more rounded than normal due to Bolivia’s altitude. Human beings all over the world have managed to serve their environment through amicable and outrageously wrong methods. Our environment’s friendliness forgives and forgets. Thanks to God. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need geologists and historians.

Accent’s Interference
I was quite surprised when one of my colleagues expressed in a meeting that it was chic to have an accent. At first I thought my hearing or my English had betrayed me. I said, “did you say what I think you said?” Since my eyes got wider as well as my redundant question, he asked me to keep talking. “María, you sound nice,” he said. I looked at him and recommended him to see more often his therapist. I would have stopped there, but he kept on and on. Finally another colleague intervened, and she said, “María sounds okay.” At that moment I said, “Hey, hey, hey. I like ‘nice’ better.” Would you believe I thought about it for a whole year? Or am I still thinking about it? Whatever! The thing is that a person’s accent can cause some sort of interference. Sad, isn’t it? An accent’s interference can be virtual (mental, emotional) or tangible. Two or more people participate in this civilized verbal transaction. We apply the unwritten rules of this transaction according to our circumstances. Each other’s willingness to understand the message in spite of his or her accent is paramount. If the accent becomes unbearable to comprehend one’s interlocutor’s message, we may have reached deadlock. This interference is the virtual kind because the tangible prevents an individual from getting a job just because of his or her accent. The tangible differentiates between what they consider stereotypes (conventionally speaking) or natives. In this case, I’m not talking about Native Americans, but North Americans in general. Thus they place the foreigner in a group nor with this individual’s knowledge, or consent. That’s reality. Check it out; I encourage your inquiry because we can’t hide what goes on around.

One day you may be the foreigner, the one with a “chic accent.” Life is a constant adventure. Live it fully and freely. Give life what it deserves, your undivided attention. Let your message’s content help your accent. During your adventure don’t forget your grammar because a grammar sheriff can always write you a ticket, whether in a classroom, at work, or at the supermarket. Wherever you decide to go, don’t forget your ID. I mean your true and only identity as the human being that you should be. If we see each other, I hope to see you outside grammar’s bars. Inside grammar’s bars the stories vary. Can you imagine a grammar prison? “Why are you here?” said prisoner One. “I’m here because I committed a comma splice.” Prisoner Two says, “I’m here because of a run on sentence”. The story can go on and on, but let’s leave it there. True speech means freedom, and freedom without knowledge becomes like an everlasting prison. Thus enjoy your foreign and native language adventure.