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  • "How I Learned English"

    3 posts, 3 voices, 959 views, started Jan 30, 2009

    Posted on Friday, January 30, 2009


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      The first phrase I learned in English was "I'm sorry, so sorry." They were the only words I could make out in a song then popular on the radio. The rest of the verses were a mystery, a garble of vowels and consonants in a female voice quavering with remorse. I was thirteen and about to learn that love meant having to say you're sorry over and over again.  

      The summer the song was a Top-40 hit, my mother decided to leave Puerto Rico. As he drove us to the airport, Papi sang along with Brenda Lee on the car radio.  

      "What does the song say?" I asked.  

      "Lo siento," Papi said. "Lo siento tanto."  

      Mami sat next to him, her lips taut. She had spent two weeks in New York before she decided to move there. Could she understand what Brenda Lee was helping my father say to her? Papi had chosen to send us away and refused to come with us. After we waved goodbye to him from the airport tarmac that afternoon, neither Mami, nor I, nor my six sisters and brothers would see him again for eight years.  

      Lo siento. Lo siento tanto.  

      Brooklyn was a reader's delight. The streets and avenues were labeled, the buildings numbered. Neon signs hissed and flashed over storefronts. Shadowed letters curved across the plate glass windows of the pharmacy, the thrift shop, the deli, the laundromat: OPEN, CLOSED, KOSHER, CHECKS CASHED, WE SELL ON CREDIT, CASH ONLY.  

      Hand written messages were taped to doors and over the mailboxes in the lobby of our apartment building: FOR RENT, FOR SALE, KEEP THIS DOOR CLOSED. Posters stretched across the sides of buses, huge billboards loomed over buildings while smaller ones were pressed into channels over the seats of subway cars. COME TO MARLBORO COUNTRY, DO NOT LEAN ON THIS DOOR, NO ANIMALS ALLOWED (EXCEPT SEEING EYE DOGS).  

      But for the occasional SE HABLA ESPAƑOL, most of the signs were a confusing jumble of advertising, admonitions, warnings, and sometimes, necessary information. NO STANDING, NO LOITERING, NO LITTERING, PULL HERE FOR EMERGENCY BRAKE. More mysterious was the graffiti sprayed on walls, scratched through layers of paint on the steel beams holding up the tracks of the elevated train, or carved in deep furrows on wooden school desks. It took me many weeks to figure out what L.A.M.F meant, and then it was hard to understand why anyone would so brazenly announce that he was like someone who had sex with his mother.  

      A classmate said that the red brick building a block from our school was a public library and that, except for REFERENCE, books could be borrowed if I lived in the neighborhood.  

      Mami gave me the electric and gas bills that showed our address. The librarian was a rosy-cheeked woman with a platinum beehive and a big bosom who smiled when she saw me. I showed her the bills. She took down the information, and spoke slowly.  

      "Your name?"

      "Esmeralda Santiago"

      "I'm sorry?"

      I spoke slowly too, but she still did not understand. She handed me a scrap and I wrote my name in the fancy cursive I had learned in Puerto Rico's public schools.  

      "Very nice," she said.  

      She printed my name on a card and handed it to me. The seventeen letters marched across the card in increasingly smaller script until the final O was punctuation. Library cards, I thought, were designed for people with short, American names, like Dick, Jane and Sally.  

      I ambled up and down the aisles, looking for a book to borrow, but none were in Spanish. Discouraged, I headed toward the door. In the children's reading room, a small group had gathered at the feet of the beehived librarian, who read then showed the illustrations. I knelt at the back of the room and listened to the story, and saw that the drawings explained the text. This is how American children learn English, I thought, by looking at books.  

      After the reading, I searched for as many alphabet picture books as I could borrow. At home, I studied the illustrations and memorized the names of things. A was for Ant, B for Boy, C for Corn, D for Dog, E was for Elephant. My favorite books were the ones with a theme, where all the words were related to each other. A for Apple, B for Banana, C for Cantaloupe was in the book about fruits. D for Doctor, E for Entertainer, F for Fireman was in the book about jobs. G for Games, H for Hot, I for Ice Cream was in the book about Summer Fun.  

      I loved turning the page after P to see what word started with Q, but it was always Queen. X was either a Xylophone or X-rays and Z was almost always a Zebra, even in the book about fruits, although in the one about jobs it was for Zookeeper.
      Within the pages of alphabet books I learned the nouns of my new life in the United States and immediately put them to use. As the weather turned from humid August to cool September to brisk October, I memorized the words for boots, coat, mittens, and Halloween. As the cold November rains drenched me on the way to and from school, I remembered ambulance, doctor, fever, hospital, nurse, and sneeze. When hungry, I pictured hot dog, pizza and soda.  

      My head was full of nouns, and wherever I went, I mentally labeled everything within sight. Door, Hydrant, Police, Sidewalk, Tree. Eventually, I graduated from alphabet to chapter books with verbs, adverbs and adjectives.  

      I read voraciously, an English/English dictionary by my side, reasoning that I already knew Spanish, but every time I looked up a word in English I could learn a few more. By the time I started 9th grade a year after we arrived in Brooklyn, my teachers were stunned to learn that I was reading at a mid-10th grade level.  

      I could read, understand and spell the words, but I would not utter them. In Spanish, every vowel and consonant is pronounced (except for h, when not preceded by c). In English, the same vowel could have different sounds: a as in apple, as in auto, as in apex, for example. I as in I, or as in in or as in ennui. U as in unknown or as in ukulele.
      Consonants were sometimes silent, and sometimes not. The k in keen sounded like the Spanish qu, but I should not say keh-nee-feh for knife. The p in upscale was popped, and the ch in china was shushed, but it was not right to say pee-see-sholo-heest when the sign read psychologist.  

      During my first two years in New York, I was afraid to speak because in spite of an impressive vocabulary, every time I opened my mouth, someone laughed.
      That changed when I was accepted to Performing Arts High School. Every drama student was required to take Voice and Diction, a class designed to soften, if not eradicate the accents of aspiring actors. We practiced V&D by memorizing and reciting monologues or scenes from famous plays. My Puerto Rican accent was heavy, but certainly no heavier than that of my classmates from the five boroughs, most of whom said oy instead of I, and either pronounced the g in 'nothing', for example, with too much emphasis, or left it out altogether.  

      Four lines from Shakespeare's, King Henry VI read:

      "He hath confessed: away with him!
      He's a villain and a traitor.
      Away with him, I say! Hang him
      With his pen and ink-horn about his neck."  

      My classmates might wear the right costume, might stand proudly on the stage holding their shields and spears, might speak from the diaphragm, but they still sounded like kids from Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

      Had I spoken the same lines, my Puerto Rican accent would have rendered them unintelligible.

      "Ee ad confeh sed, a y wid eem
      Ee ees a vee jan an a try tor.
      A y wid eem, I sigh. Ang eem
      Wid ees pen an ink orns ah boat ees neck."  

      Until I was forced to speak Shakespeare, my tongue refused to form the th sound. Mrs. Provet, my tenth grade teacher, gave me tongue twisters that promised to help develop the necessary muscles: I thought a thought, but the thought I thought wasn’t the thought
      I thought I thought.  

      My tortured diphthongs and confused vowels were a constant embarrassment, but a source of mirth to my classmates and teachers. I slit the sheet, the sheet I slit, and on the slitted sheet I sit.  

      Mrs. Provet suggested that I stand in front of a mirror and repeat the tongue twisters until I could say them with no mistakes.  

      Betty Botter had some butter,
      “But,” she said, “this butter’s bitter.
      If I bake this bitter butter,
      it would make my batter bitter."

      Books gave me the words, but Mrs. Provet, gave me the tools and the courage to utter them. By the time I saw my father again, I could read and understand even the most challenging books and could speak English with only a faint accent and few stumbles.
      The only thing I could not and have never been able to do in English is understand the lyrics of songs. The words pour through the music into my brain and dissipate into gibberish as if that first phrase I learned, so full of regret and longing, still lingers.
      But that is a small price to pay for what I have gained. I am not sorry for learning English well enough for it to become my literary language.  

      I am grateful that my high school teacher understood that I needed more than the standard curriculum, and found imaginative ways to motivate and inspire me.
      As a working artist I am particularly grateful to teachers who, like my beloved Mrs. Provet, identify the tender shoots of artistic creativity and nurture them into flowers.  

      By Esmeralda Santiago


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