Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Language Acquisition/Resistance Journal

"Tongues" by D. Miranda


1. A Lesson in Endings

Gender nails this language down,
our instructor says, attencion!

Endings in ‘a’ signify feminine;
‘o’ masculine. However

there are exceptions - always
the most interesting, no?

Por ejemplo, you would think
the word for “language” – idioma –

is feminine, but it is preceeded
by el. El idioma. The word

becomes male almost by force, no?
On the other hand, smiles la profesora,

Spain has other languages,
once hidden. During Franco’s reign

these were forbidden – el catalan,
el gallego, el vascuence.

The people in Cataluna, Gallicia
and el Pais Vasco buried their subversive tongues.

Now that Franco is gone, they fight
for separatist rights. Bombs, terrorismo.

La Profesora pauses, brushes back her hair.
Next, we look at plurals.

At home in the evening
wanting to water sunflowers,

I tell my son turn on the hose,
gracias mijo. For some reason

he asks, how do you say God
in Spanish? I remember mi profesora says

Gracias a Dios. My eight year old
asks, and Goddess is … ?

I want to say Dias, to be logical,
but of course that means days.

My son says, The whole day is a goddess!
No, mi’ijo. Gender nails this tongue to the cross.

2. Questions of Conversion

Father Arroyo de la Cuesta, attempting to preserve in written form the various Indian dialects heard around him at the Mission, wrote, “a verb with no past tense is above my comprehension but I will ask God's help and will learn, though it take bloody tears."

How do you conjugate
the verb ser (to be) -

when you have been
declared extinct?

How do you produce
the formal usted

when the priest teaching it
rapes you?

I want to know –
when did my ancestors

begin dreaming in Spanish,
make love in Spanish?

When did our tongues

I know our first words
were a foreign prayer.

Amar a Dios –
the only instruction

necessary before baptism
with magical water,

sign of the cross
between blows.

Amar a Dios.
Who was the first Indian girl

to be named Maria?
Who was the last Indian child

to be given an Esselen name?
How can I pronounce

those alien names
written in Castilian script

filling the black ledgers?
They are only skeletons

anyway, not the heart
or flesh of a people.

Will I ever know
how they sounded

coming out of an Esselen
mouth – called by a grandparent,

sister, lover, child,
mother, river?

Did someone hide my name
in that parchment, bury it

- forget the way back?

3. Oral Tradition

Silence is a long story,
a complex art left

to descendents
of native speakers.

Ribboned palm fronds
hang absolutely still.

A thousand tongues
that don’t move,

yet exist whole
and fully formed.

Sometimes I dream
in Spanish. My mouth

moves in all the proper
patterns: the rolling r,

delicate placement
of tongue against teeth,

subtle slip of consonants.
But in the morning

I taste
a tide of blood,

slick iron in my
traitorous mouth.

4. Vocabulario

Every time I learn a Spanish word
I want to know the Esselen word

it replaced. I am forty-six
years old before my sister

uncovers the ethnologist’s
vocabulary notes. At last

between my teeth
I clench the Unholy Trinity:

English, Spanish, Esselen.
Water. Agua. Asanax.

Bear. Oso. Koltala.
Earth. La tierra. Madsa-no.

I laugh. How can I shape
a third language to describe

a second language that
destroyed the first language?

This language:
blade to slice my tongue.

Este lengua:
un beso como un cuchillo.

nishwelel, kumal:
sever our bonds, tear the gag

from our mouths.
Remember us.

While in grad school, I had to take 3 years of a language to qualify for my Ph.D. I decided, since I'd taken 2 years of Spanish in high school and knew bits of the language from both parents (my father grew up speaking it, my mother learned it from the street and, later, at community college), that Spanish was the most likely to get me through. My university offered a one-quarter course in Old or Middle English (can't remember now) that would cover the entire 3 years - quite a bribe - but I was convinced I wouldn't survive that. I was wrong. 3 years of Spanish - plus a 300 level Spanish Literature class - nearly killed me. I had no idea I would be so resistant to the language that my ancestors had to learn by force. I kept a journal of the process, however, to absorb my anger and frustration. Just recently, thanks to my sister Louise's work with the Esselen language, I was able to finish this poem. The irony, of course, is that I've ended up needing, using, and improving upon my Spanish because of all this research into Spanish California. Many, many records are only in Spanish, or use Spanish in ways that translation doesn't do justice. (In the meantime, I raised such a stink about having to do three full years of Spanish while other folks could do one quarter of Old English that the English Dept at my university actually changed the requirement. Now you just have to be able to take one lit course in a language to qualify. One of my legacies in this world, I guess!)

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