When English Is Not Your Native Language

You had better avoid using certain words!

Focus written on hand
Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash

The tricky problem of pronouncing vowels just right

There are at least three words every native Spanish speaker should avoid saying in English: focus, sheet and beach.

Focus (f*ck us)

I know several high-school teachers whose native language is Spanish. They don’t ask their students to “f*ck us”. No, teenagers should never engage in sexual activity in school. Rather, in class, students need to “pay attention.”

Sheet (sh%t)

When Luisa does laundry, she never washes the “sh%ts”. There’s no excrement to wash, fortunately. She does, however, wash all the “bed linen” on a weekly basis.

Many native Spanish speakers will not make use of a cheat “sh%t”. They prefer a “flashcard.”

Teachers should never ask their students to take out a “sh%t” of paper. A “piece” of paper will do.

Beach (b#tch)

The “coast and the “sea are places my friend Raquel loves and often goes on vacation. The “b#tch” though, she doesn’t seem to like or visit much.

All kidding aside, why do we need to go through all this trouble?

Spanish is what’s called an orthographically shallow language. English, by contrast, is orthographically deep. I’m not referring at all to either language’s ability to express thoughts and ideas of any given depth.

Alphabetic orthography simply refers to the degree of correspondence between a letter and a sound. One-to-one correspondence is the case for most letters of the alphabet in Spanish. This makes Spanish shallow. In English, a deep language, many letters say multiple sounds.

Here’s the problem with vowels: Spanish and English both have five vowels, a-e-i-o-u. In Spanish, they make five sounds. What you see in writing is what you say and what you say is what you write. Always. In English, these very same vowels make 14 to 20 vowel sounds! Go figure.

As we in the Spanish-speaking world learn to talk, and as we keep talking over the years, our mouths get used to saying five vowel sounds only. No wonder English pronunciation (and spelling for that matter) is so damn confusing!

Thus, next time you hear us mispronounce, remember: it’s not that we’re shallow. It’s just that someone decided to make English tricky, non-sensical, and “deep”.

The dilemmas of writing in non-native English

I began to learn English at school when I was 4 years old, in Caracas, Venezuela. My school had a strong English language curriculum that emphasized, above all else, grammar and spelling.

Still, my life took place in Spanish and I didn’t have to write anything longer than a couple of paragraphs in English until I went away to college in the US.

Oh, except for my college admissions essay, which my father, who’d lived in the US through his high school and college years, helped me with.

I soon discovered how utterly unprepared I was for all the writing college required. The first essay I wrote was for a first-year seminar called War, and I procrastinated (out of fear?) until the night before it was due.

That night, I learned the term all-nighter.

I actually wrote the essay longhand, if you can believe it. The year being 1987, it was probably one of the last times any professor at my college had a student turn in a handwritten essay.

A guy who lived down the hallway in my dorm, and whom I would date two years later, helped me out. I could tell he thought it was both stupid and hilarious that I’d put off starting my first real essay until the night before it was due.

Yet, here I am, 33 years later, writing out of choice — in English.

The truth is my K-12 school didn’t emphasize essay writing at all — in any language. Thus, the only language I have practice writing in is English. However good or bad my writing may be, it would be far inferior in Spanish, which is not only my native language but also my most fluent “natural” language.

There are times when I’m keenly aware that I write in non-native English.

The most obvious instance is when I deal with prepositions. Grammar correction tools are great, but, sometimes, not even Grammarly is of any help.

Do I work in North School, at North School, or for North School?

Did I put on my pajamas backward or inside out?

Then there’s the impersonal Spanish “se”, which I so often wish existed in English.

When I write in English, I’m not translating ideas from Spanish to English. Sometimes, though, as I write a sentence, the thought “This would sound so perfect with se” comes to mind.

For example, in Spanish, we need not call you or anyone out when suggesting or requiring. “Hay que cubrirse la boca” is directed at the universe, while “You must cover your mouth” is directed at you.

“Se habla inglés” sounds friendlier than “English spoken here.”

And, doesn’t “Se añaden 2 tazas de azúcar” in a recipe sound more optional than “Add 2 cups of sugar”?

How about the dilemma of when to use contractions? I imagine native speakers of English just know when to use can’t instead of cannot, and they’ll and not they will.

Since I was taught not to use contractions in writing, I always end up adding them during revision. Habits acquired in childhood are mighty hard to break!

Because of how I was taught to write English, I know my inclination is to write very formal, and that, perhaps, this makes me try too hard to sound the opposite. I also know I’ll never get the prepositions and contractions just right, and that word order may sound a bit off at times.

I like to think, though, that being a non-native English writer ultimately makes my work a bit more original. But that’s for readers to decide.

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4 Reasons My Autistic Son’s an Amazing Travel Companion

And how he makes the experience better for the group

Young man in front of fountian
Diego at Bar Harbor’s “Fontana di Trevi”

This summer, my family was supposed to go to South Africa on vacation, a huge deal given that we’ve never been anywhere in Africa and that my son, Diego, who has autism, has long been obsessed with African animals, from the dung beetle to the springbok.

With the pandemic, we obviously cancelled the trip. Actually, we “postponed it” to summer 2021, as Diego often reminds us.

I didn’t plan to go anywhere this summer beyond Connecticut, where we live, and New York City, where my other son, Andres, lives. Last minute, however, I asked my sister if Diego and I could join her on a week long trip to Maine.

I asked knowing she’d say yes even though she’d reserved to stay in places meant for seven, not nine, guests. My six siblings and I are used to crowding more people into a place than the number it’s supposed to accommodate.

Luckily, no adult males other than Diego were going, so we wouldn’t have to worry about needy humans who find it problematic to sleep three to a bed meant for two people or to share a bathroom with nine family members.

Our Maine trip was magical and made me realize what an amazing travel companion Diego is.

For starters, Diego can sleep anywhere, with anyone.

Getting a good night’s sleep is always important and there’s no better person to share a bed with than Diego. Once he lies down, he does not move or get up for at least nine hours.

It’s quite extraordinary. He sleeps as if lying in a coffin. When it gets bright, he’ll cover his eyes with his forearm or pull the sheet over his head. Other than that, he’s still.

Then there’s the refreshing fact that Diego hardly ever complains.

He doesn’t seem to mind situations that typically bother the youth during family trips. He doesn’t ask if we’re there yet or how long till we get there. He doesn’t mind which bed or room he gets — which is great, since he doesn’t have it in him to say no if someone asked him to trade.

He does complain about stuff that normally aggravates him, like not heading out to eat at 7:00 pm when the plan was to go out to eat at 7:00 pm. But such complaints are to be expected and easy to appease.

Diego’s agenda is to be part of the action and group, to spend time with us and have our attention. You’ll never hear him whine that we never do what he wants to do, like I do when our family of four goes on vacation.

Another great thing about Diego is that he’s predictable and follows the rules.

When we set off on the eight-hour journey to Maine, we decided on two rules for the trip: no complaining and having fun. Since rules are for following, as everyone knows but few take to heart the way Diego does, all I had to do if Diego started complaining (which, as explained above, he hardly does) was to remind him of the rules.

Diego’s day has a rhythm. His silly hour is at around 6:30 pm. His constant talking subsides at approximately 7:00 pm, a little while after taking his meds. He gets really sleepy at 8:30 pm and wakes up between 7:30 and 8:30 am.

Finally, Diego’s up for anything. Not only is Diego fine with any plan, he thoroughly enjoys each one. We went to the beach in Acadia National Park and he didn’t hesitate to get in and frolic in the freezing cold (55 ºF, or 13 ºC) Atlantic. We hiked the unexpectedly difficult and quite dangerous Beehive Trail and he happily forged through.

Man in the ocean
Freezing cold water in Acadia
two hikers climbing
Hiking the super steep Beehive trail.

Aunt Lole is going for a walk? Diego will join her. And, if the moment they get back from their walk I decide I now want to go on a walk? Diego will join me too.

Ask him to carry the water bottle, empty the dishwasher, take the garbage out, and you always know his answer will be yes. Lately, he has taken to responding with, “I did it because I love you.”

Yeah, Diego sure knows how to make himself endearing, generalizing the “because I love you” to various situations, such as: “I need to say good-night to dad because I love him,” and “Can you buy me an iced tea because you love me?”

Food’s seldom a problem for Diego, as long as there are gluten-free options, given his Celiac condition. He’s as excited to have french fries from McDonald’s for lunch as he is about seafood stew at the fancy restaurant.

It’s not that outdoor activities just happen to be his thing. He was the same when we went to Rome. He was just as excited about visiting museums and monuments, associating what he beheld to his favorite movies or other things he had seen elsewhere.

In Bar Harbor, he actually said the fountain (the one shown in the picture above) was just like Rome’s Fontana di Trevi.

Diego doesn’t have the safety skills to go out and explore on his own, but that’s OK. He’s game for everything and finds magic in things big and small in all kinds of destinations.

Diego’s certainly a trip.

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