I had a moment of self-revelation today, and it makes me like myself less.
In my life I have had two flaming love affairs: my relationship with my husband and my obsession with the English language.
When I got my very first corporate job (a scintillating gig writing training manuals for an insurance company), I taped a favorite quotation to my typewriter: “Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible.”
This admonition, penned by Shaw and spoken by Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, was attached to every keyboard I used until the very end of my career. It encouraged me to write well, to be precise; as I mined the rich vein of words in our lexicon, I was determined not to put thoughts on paper until each was set as a jewel.
My first boss, who was a wonderful teacher and a rabid editor, alerted me to one major drawback of using the language to its fullest: writers often need to communicate with people whose vocabularies are small… whose reading skills are minimal.
This did not mean, by the way, that the writing should be dumbed down. It meant that a writer must learn how to use simple words and short sentences to explain complex ideas and processes. The work cannot be vague; readers need to grasp instructions for performing detailed tasks, and for developing intricate skills.
I would not have accepted the challenge if I hadn’t needed the paycheck, but I did… even as I swore I would someday find a way to write without having to truss my tongue.
In time, I learned to write simply.
I just didn’t learn how to curb my vocabulary when speaking to other people.
I didn’t even realize this was a problem until many years later, when I was teaching a class of cable TV technicians how to communicate with their customers. The trainees were asked to perform a simple role play, and one fellow crossed his arms rather fiercely and refused.
“What’s the problem, I asked?”
“I’m not gonna talk to other people like you do, using big words and making them feel stupid.”
I hadn’t realized I did that.
I certainly never meant to make anyone feel stupid, or to make them the least bit uncomfortable, but I had to agree that when I spoke to them, I always tried to be precise, and I didn’t take the time to edit my speech the way I’d edit something on paper.
I don’t remember whether I apologized to this man, but I do know I was angry with him. How dare he accuse me of using the language aggressively? Was it my fault he was too lazy to learn his native tongue, and use it freely and effectively?
After all, I had learned how to speak English pretty damn well, and it wasn’t even my native language!
My beloved Shaw notwithstanding, my native language wasn’t William Shakespeare’s… it was the language of Cervantes, Garcia Lorca and José Martí.
Cue Henry Higgins again, but this time, from My Fair Lady. “‘Her English is too good,’ he said, ‘that clearly indicates that she is foreign. Whereas others are instructed in their native language, English people aren’t.’”
I love my bloody English because I had to work damn hard to learn it. It became the one thing that distinguished me at school, in the workplace, and more than anywhere else, in my own family.
The people around me could call me awkward, they could call me fat, they could call me boring and they could call me weird, but damn it, they would never say I couldn’t speak English… and if they wanted to demean my limited and childish Spanish, I had a field of my own in which I could excel.
I don’t know why I thought of it today, but I have finally realized that I am no better than that trainee who felt threatened by the way I spoke.
My parents spoke beautifully elegant Spanish. I did not. I left Havana at the age of six, and since then, I have spoken Spanish with all the skill of a first grader. I had the words I needed to express my love for my mother, and to chat about the shared experiences of females in a mid-century household, but I certainly did not have the vocabulary that I needed to exchange ideas with my father. I felt his disdain as I struggled to express myself; whether this was real, or merely a projection of my insecurity, I don’t think I’ll ever know.
I do know I resented him, though, just like that trainee resented me.
And I’ve gone on to resent everyone who has ever tried to correct my Spanish, a language I try very hard not to speak.
This makes me wonder how many people I’ve offended with the way I speak and the way I write in English.
It’s enough to make a girl shut her mouth.