When I reflect upon “dialect” in English, I think of regional accents. Although vocabulary also shifts as one travels from Alabama to Wisconsin to London, England, this is not as apparent to me as the contrast of dialects in my second language: Spanish.
My journey con hablando español has been mottled. In middle and high school, I learned grammatically correct Spanish, with a heavy emphasis on the particularities of el idioma de México y de España. As tends to be the case in American schools, I was taught to read and write Spanish long before I gained good conversational skills. At the same time that I was walking around conjugating verbs in my head, I was dating an Argentinian and living in caribeño-centric Florida. Needless to say, my head was spinning with the many faces of the third most-spoken language in the world.
I went on to take a few Spanish courses in college and became a certified Spanish Language tutor. Still, I wasn’t sure what kind of Spanish I spoke and never quite had the confidence to jump into conversations for fear of speaking the “wrong” Spanish.
This fear disappeared during my semester studying abroad, when I learned Italian via immersion. Suddenly, I had to put myself out there and risk sounding muy tonta. Letting go of my pride opened a door that I didn’t know existed, and I was a nearly fluent Italian speaker after three months. That’s all it took to remind me of the value of testing my brain’s elasticity with verbal experimentation. When I came back to the U.S., I decided that I wanted to take my Spanish – whatever category of dialect it may fall under – to the next level.
And, as they say, lo demás es historia.
I spoke Spanish with as many native speakers as I could find, listened to Spanish talk radio, and asked questions. Because my son’s father is Cuban and Puerto Rican, I became immersed in Caribbean culture and the idiosyncrasies of the tongue that is readily available to me. The Boricua dialect that used to throw me for a loop is now the one I understand the best. I have adopted this accent and vocabulary; I swallow my s’s and never fully pronounce “-ado.” I love bachata and reggaeton and have learned to like adobo. With all these little mechanisms, I am proud to be able to provide my son with an authentic piece of himself that only recently became a part of me.
Even the most elementary exposure to a second language teaches us that we are all inadvertent chameleons, constantly adapting to our environments with ease. All we need is the will to soak up the details and the insistence to seize opportunities. The rest happens on its own: we speak the unique language(s) we create within our families, communities, and countries. Yet somehow, we all manage to understand each other.