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The American language journey
La Voz Staff Photo

By David Conde

Recently I attended the 2017-18 pre-service training for the leadership of the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project headquartered in Raleigh, N.C. that led with a lecture by Dr. Arturo Hernandez, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston who specializes in brain function in the development of bilingual children. Stories related to his work in Germany and Spain are particularly fascinating.

His lecture addressed major questions about my own journey as a bilingual speaker and reader of books that began with me running home from school with a paperback that had the covers missing. This paperback was used at the time as the pre-reader to the first-grade book, Fun with Dick and Jane.

The pre-reader had some of the same characters as the first-grade book that included Sally, Dick and Spot the dog. My excitement at having my first school book led me to stay ahead of the class and read the book as soon as I could.

I soon was reading other more difficult volumes such as The Count of Monte Cristo brought home one day by my uncle. In the meantime at home, I was reading a story book titled El Gaucho Smith that told about the adventures of a cowboy in the Argentine countryside called “la pampa.”

My reading journey took me from the lower shelves of the elementary school libraries looking for animal stories followed by sports figures and then history books. As the English in the books became more and more difficult, I noticed that I began to rely more and more on my knowledge of Spanish to find cognates that could give me at least an approximate meaning of some of the words.

Although I was too young to realize it at the time, my reading success in both English and Spanish depended in part on my using one language to help overcome the comprehension difficulties in the other. This became even more important as the language in poems and novels became more subtle, metaphoric and symbolic.

I began to define what I had previously been doing naturally as I worked to learn German and Portuguese. This was confirmed in a graduate class on etymology that taught me how to trace words in Spanish all the way back to their origins in Latin.

Professor Hernandez’ research indicates that my experience in using Spanish to learn English becomes more and more important as an individual grows to use higher order words. Specifically, the research shows that at a very early age, an American child uses words with 82 percent German/English and 18 percent Latin origins. Later, the everyday words in an American adult vocabulary breaks almost even at 54 percent German/English and 46 percent Latin origins.

Things get really interesting when an individual goes to school and learns the Academic vocabulary that evidences higher order words. In this case, the use of more formal English is based on 96 percent Latin and only 4 percent English/German word origins.

The lesson learned is that it is most helpful for Americans to use Latin to help with their English learning. However, since Latin is a language that is no longer used for general communication, it falls to Spanish, the second most used in the world and in the United States and one that comes directly from Latin to be used to learn the best English.

Learning the best English is among the stated American educational and political goals. My experience has been that this is also the way to become the best bilingual citizen.





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