Spanish with my Grandmother


Today is the second death anniversary of an amazing multi-lingual woman: my grandmother. She learned to speak Ibanag, Tagalog, Spanish, and English fluently, but Spanish best of all. It was the language of her Creole parents, of a Philippines that had started slipping away before she was born, and of her own heart. The saddest footnote in her life was that she never passed it down to her seven children and fifteen grandchildren.

I have thought of her a lot since I started Her strengths and weaknesses as both a language learner and a language teacher make her an interesting case study.

Lala the Language Learner

It was easy for “Lala” to grow up bilingual in the northern Philippine province of Cagayan: she learned Spanish at home and the local Ibanag everywhere else. Tagalog and English were also taught at school — and during World War II, a bit of Nihonggo. Until the end of her life, Lala could recite the polite phrases everyone was supposed to say to the Japanese soldiers, though that was as far as her Japanese learning went. On the other hand, her English grew good enough for her to major in English Literature. But she didn’t choose to become English or American the way she chose to become Spanish.

The key to Lala’s character is the year her family spent in Spain. Those twelve months changed her forever: she stopped being a Cagayana Creole and became a Barcelonan. She dropped the Mexican words in Filipino Spanish for their Castilian counterparts. Then she picked up the Castilian accent, along with expressions, tastes, and even traditions that she would keep for the rest of her life, as if she had known them since birth.

From the wide-eyed way she always spoke about the Fiesta de los Reyes, even I assumed she had experienced it as a girl — that she, too, had put shoes by her bedroom window, full of childlike hope that the “Three Kings” would fill them with candy on their way to Bethlehem. The truth was that she had been old enough to play the adult role in this cultural game. But by becoming Barcelonan, she inherited the entire Barcelonan experience, including a whole other childhood. For the rest of her life, she would meet native Spaniards who immediately believed she was one of them.

I wish I could ask her about that year. How much of her learning was a fully conscious process?

Lala the Language Teacher

In fairness to Lala, she would have loved to raise Spanish-speaking children. But my grandfather, despite also being bilingual in Tagalog and English, did not want his children speaking a language he himself didn’t know. And since he did not think of himself as a language learner, what he did was ban Spanish from the household.

But Lala was able to pass on some things — like the Jesusito prayer that all Spanish children learn, and the traditions of the Fiesta de los Reyes. I was able to inherit them, too, and to become more Spanish than my peers. Yet I did not go much further.

When it came to learning the language itself, I found Lala the worst possible teacher. Her method was to say something in Spanish, then repeat it, more slowly and more loudly, until you either understood or guessed correctly. It was very frustrating, and it turned me off the language very quickly.

What I did not see at the time was that she was trying to immerse me in “real Spanish,” as she, a native Barcelonan, spoke it — and not in artificial “classroom Spanish.” Had known then what I know now, I would have appreciated it more. But all I knew was that it was not what I wanted from a teacher. And I wish she had known she needed to meet me halfway.

Yours Truly, the Spanish Student

I never did properly study Spanish. But I did spend a lot of time in my grandmother’s bedroom, where the TV played Television Español almost twenty-four hours a day. It was passive listening for me and something more essential for her. For Lala ended up outliving all her siblings and most of her Spanish speaking friends. At the end of her life, TV was the last way she could still hear the language of her heart. She was matriarch of a lively extended family . . . and lonely in a world the rest of us could not enter.

Another thing I did not see back then was how often she tried to invite us inside. Sometimes the invitations were easy to accept, like merienda with queso cabrales and pan tostado. Lala was at least successful in getting us to like blue cheese! But only true way to enter her world was through the Spanish language . . . and like my grandfather, none of us went that far. Now I wish we had known we needed to meet her halfway.

If I could have one more merienda with her, I would tell her about a surprise breakthrough. Last year, when I was dabbling in Italian, I telephoned a friend in Milan for some speaking practice. It was surprisingly easy; and I was patting myself on the back for picking up so much Italian in such a short time when my friend interrupted: “Cristina, you’re actually speaking Spanish.”

Lala would be so pleased to know it . . . and to hear it from me en Español.

Did you learn a language from a grandparent?

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