Bridging the Language Gap


Editor’s Note: The following entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works. Fr. Mike reflects on his experience of trying to learn Spanish in his new ministry in Camden, and the challenges that accompany this new task. It is easy for us to resist anything that takes work, but by embracing the challenge, we can understand more about what it means to be human and enter into meaningful relationships with those who we believe are different from us. Work for justice is meaningless unless we are willing to meet people where they are and enter into their worlds. Language is one important aspect of all people’s worlds, and Fr. Mike captures this well in the following entry.


Is there anything closer to us than our language? We use language inside our minds to think. Words enable us to connect to others and to God. They enable us to understand feelings and experiences. We have vocabulary to express everything from the light and fun to the profound and serious. Language is such a complicated and human thing: nearly as close to us as our breath or each beat of our heart.
Language is a huge part of the experience of Camden. Most of our people are new Americans from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, or Mexico. There are also families from other regions of Latin America, and even one French speaking family at Mass each Sunday from Senegal. Though we have been here since August 2008, I have just in September begun leading the celebration of Mass in Spanish. I began gradually, starting with the opening rites: the sign of the cross and the litany of praise at the beginning of Mass, “Senor, ten piedad. Cristo, ten piedad. Senor, ten piedad.” —Familiar, short and repetitive. Over the months of this semester, I have haltingly expanded the amount of Spanish prayers to the point where I can read the entire Mass—minus gospel and homily—in my new language. “Read” is the correct verb; I barely raise my eyes from the page. One Sunday, I got to the word “merezcamos” toward the end of the Eucharistic Prayer and thought to myself, “Why did I not practice more?” Defeated by the sight of all those consonants, I just said, “and an ‘M. word’ that I can’t say … por tu Hijo Jesucristo. Amen.” Not very professional.
The recent comment of a woman after the Spanish weekday Liturgy encouraged me to plunge into the entire Mass. She said, “You know more Spanish than you think.” (“No,” I thought, “I really don’t.”) She went on, “No matter how badly you pronounce all the words or how many sounds you get wrong, we are grateful that you try.” I was tempted to just let her comment stand as a well-meaning, backhanded compliment. But what she says is true; there is something to just doing it. The fact that I am getting better with the prayers I have been using for a couple months—gives me confidence that there can be progress.
I never studied Spanish in school. I took French beginning in 8th grade and continuing into college. French has been very helpful for pilgrimage to Salesian sites: Troyes, Annecy, and Dijon, and for greeting our African family at Mass, “bon jour.” We had to take Latin in the seminary. I resisted it at the time, but I am now grateful for the exposure.
Language is so complicated. But the woman from morning Mass was right to push me to try more.
My Spanish is emerging from a primordial soup of sounds. Music at our newly combined parish is amazing—uplifting and full of energy. For two and half years I have sung along, making Spanish sounds—more than actually singing. It has been like what babies do learning to talk—cooing, trying out sounds, playing with words. Now that immersion experience is paying off, albeit in the very specific context of the Mass. In addition there are more Spanish words than I realized that are part of U.S. culture: names, place names, names of food, common words and phrases (hola, adios, gracias, nada, vamos, santa, san, amigo, senor) all help. Familiarity with Latin and French give some clues for Spanish words in the soup. Cognates, Spanish words that are similar in English, help a lot.
The analogy with baby sounds brings us to a major issue for people learning a new language. It can be very humiliating—or humbling. Essayist David Sedaris writes about the frustrations and realities of trying to make a new language your own in his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. He writes that he realizes he sounds like his immigrant Greek grandfather in the U.S. He realizes that his vocabulary and understanding of how things are said is just never going to be anything like natural and smooth. And he is a writer—someone who relishes expressing ideas with crisp and vivid language. There is no way to get around the fact that this is a handicap. He’s an adult, but in his adopted culture, he has to talk baby talk and endure the assumptions that come with that.
My experience of learning another language in this way, gives a partial window into the experience of our immigrant neighbors. The Oblate pastor here, Matt Hillyard, often comments how patient people are about his Spanish language efforts, noting that trying to speak a foreign language is what they do all day. So they know what it is like to make errors—and to just go on doing the best they can.
DSW volunteer, Tim Gallagher, teaches English to four young guys newly arrived from the Dominican Republic. Observing this process has given another window into how complicated language is—even though native speakers can take it for granted. One day I drove them home with Tim, and I listened to them learn to use the words “right” and “left.” What could be more simple? But it was not for them. Listen to how many sounds are involved in “left.” Look at the word “right;” how do we get that sound from that combination of letters? (Another example is the word I messed up recently in a newsletter: medal —or metal, meddle, mettle.)
This experience in 21st century Camden fits the pattern of immigration to the U.S. since the beginning. People describe neighborhoods in Camden in the 30s and 40s where everyone spoke Italian or Polish or Puerto Rican Spanish. At one point in the 1800s New York City had the largest German speaking population of any city, more than Vienna, second only to Berlin.
Though I try to claim that I am 200% Irish, my father actually is Polish. His parents came from Europe as young adults and learned to speak only very broken English. His parish grade school taught class in both languages. This was bilingual education before the word was invented. But no one taught our generation even a single word of Polish.
This is often the pattern in our neighborhood as well: older people speak only Spanish, working age people speak both, but children understand Spanish, but are most comfortable with English.
Highlighting the other half of my background, I sometimes joke that I grew up speaking Gaelic at home, but of course that is not true. But the experience of the Irish having our very language taken from us, gives some understanding of older generations of Latino people here who morn the fact the youngest generation might lose the language of their people. Language carries the culture and part of their identity. But the Irish have famously made our own the language of our bullying neighbor. Our writers and talkers make masterful use of the English. So Latinos make English their own, enriching the living language in the process.
This experience colors how we might hear comments like, “Why don’t they just learn English?” Or “He/she doesn’t even try to speak English.” Or “This is America; speak English.” Language is a complicated tool; patience and understanding are called for.

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment