Not Fluent In Any Language
On TikiTikiBlog.com, Carrie talks about the “Latino 1.5” – which by definition is: “not proficient in English or Spanish and born to first-generation American immigrants from Mexico and Central America.”
This reminded me of an issue Carlos faces, which I know is familiar to many others out there.
According to the definition, Carlos isn’t truly a “Latino 1.5″ – he wasn’t born in the United States and wasn’t brought here as a child. He was born and raised in El Salvador and immigrated here at about 18 years old. While learning to speak English, he has maintained his Spanish – making him bilingual – but there’s a problem.
Do you remember how you spoke at the age of 18? Has your vocabulary grown since then? Most of us would say, “Yes.” In fact, scientifically speaking, your vocabulary should have grown by thousands of words between the ages of 18 and 30 – perhaps more if you like to read.
Although this is a chart of vocabulary size by age for English-speakers, (and the English language has double the words the Spanish language has), common sense tells as that a chart for speakers of any language would look similar – with one’s vocabulary increasing with age.
But what happens when one is removed from their native-speaker environment? Less interaction in the language means vocabulary growth slows, stagnates, or worse, begins to decrease as new words are not learned and unused words are forgotten.
So back to Carlos. What does this mean for him, and others like him? It means that while he is bilingual, he is not fluent in either language – at least not at the level he should be for his age. The longer he’s in the U.S. the more Spanish he forgets. He has Spanish-speaking co-workers but they’re Mexican, not Salvadoran. While he hasn’t seemed to pick up any Mexican-isms, (as is really common for Salvadorans in the U.S.) – he does seem to use less Salvadoran-isms.
His mother no longer lives with us and he has a lukewarm relationship with most of his family. He calls his best friend back in El Salvador a couple times a week with phone cards that last around 15 minutes and that is pretty much the only Salvadoran Spanish he gets to speak. He doesn’t like to read either, so his vocabulary doesn’t grow even in standard Spanish – He is, for the most part, stunted in his native language.
In English, Carlos seems to learn a new word every day, but having begun to learn it so late in life, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever reach the fluency enjoyed by native speakers – particularly when it comes to reading and writing.
As for me – as a language lover, book lover, a writer, and someone who just generally finds pleasure in expressing myself through words, I think the situation is kind of heartbreaking. I can’t imagine the frustration that one would feel not having sufficient words to describe thoughts and emotions with precision. An example of this happened just yesterday.
Carlos went to great lengths to explain to me that he was feeling “weird” – he told me he had been thinking of memories from his teenage years and listening to music from that time in his life. He said that the memories and music made him sad in a weird way even though the memories and music are both happy. The word Carlos was looking for was “nostalgic” (or, “nostálgico” in Spanish) – but neither of these words were part of his regular vocabulary so I had to supply them for him. Once I gave him the word he was able to give his feelings a name, which is reassuring as human beings have an innate need to understand things and categorize them.
Are you not completely fluent in any language or do you know someone who is?
Update: I see that the Tiki Tiki is blogging on a similar topic today. Check out, “Oye, Are you Really Bilingual?”
Update #2: A friend, (Diane) mentioned to me that she blogged about her experience on this topic and I asked for her link. Here is another story about losing fluency in one’s first language. Also, I learned from Diana the name of this phenomenon in case anyone wants to research further: Language Attrition.