Spanish was my first language. It was the only language I knew until I was 5 and began school in the U.S.
At first, going to school felt scary because I didn’t speak English. I would cry, and explain as best I could that I had a stomachache and needed to go to the nurse. Then I’d tell the nurse I needed to go home.
Now, it’s hard to imagine struggling with English because English feels much more natural to me than the language in which I spoke my first words back in the Dominican Republic. At 17, I write, think, and even dream in English.
But my mom never really learned English. For most of my life, I’ve translated government documents into Spanish for her. I’ve translated school forms, parent-teacher conferences, text messages, emails, and songs on the radio.
About a year ago, my mom, a home health aide, called me from work. She works mostly with Spanish speakers, but her new patient spoke only English. The woman wanted a certain kind of bread from the supermarket and had lost patience trying to communicate that to my mom.
People have so little patience for those who speak minimal English. They ask, judgment in their voice, “How could you live in the United States for so long and still not know English?” They assume that after 12 years here, she’s lazy or just doesn’t want to learn the language.
The truth is more complicated. Learning a new language as an adult takes time and energy, and that’s not easy to find when you’re working long hours, sometimes overnight, just to get by. Immigrants should have easy and affordable ways to learn a new language. While some countries offer unlimited free language courses and even pay immigrants to learn the local language, the U.S. does not.
I try to remember that when I’m helping my mom and when I’m asked to translate for customers at Old Navy, where I work on weekends. It takes time, effort, and focus away from my job responsibilities, though I’m expected to act like it’s no big deal.
It’s been even harder lately because I feel my Spanish slipping away. Researchers call this “first-language attrition,” and it’s common among people, especially kids, who spend long periods of time away from their native country and language.
They ask her, judgment in their voice, ‘How could you live in the United States for so long and still not know English?’
After 12 years in the U.S., I’m always forgetting Spanish words. I find myself saying “thing” instead of “cosa,” for example, and sometimes, I need to use Google Translate just to have a conversation with my mom. Since I am not able to speak Spanish as well as I used to, my conversations with my mom shorten day by day. A long talk turns into small talk. It doesn’t feel genuine.
Whenever I struggle to remember a word or phrase in Spanish, I get flustered. I feel my cheeks get hot and red. I know what I’m trying to say, but I can’t remember how to say it. I reach for other words, but it ends up sounding weird. Sometimes, I give up when I can’t get across what I want to say because I know how to say it in one language but not the other.
In these moments, it can feel like I’m losing an important part of myself — the Dominican part. My mom and I don’t celebrate a lot of Dominican traditions. Only our Spanish language and Dominican food (like mangu with squeaky fried cheese, thin, crispy salami, and salted tostones) connect us to our homeland.
This year, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to speak Spanish on a daily basis with my Spanish-speaking friends. Sometimes I wish I had worked harder to keep up my Spanish, but it was something I didn’t think I could lose.
Learning a new language is hard. So is keeping an old one.
Ashally De La Cruz is a senior at Central Park East High School in New York City. She has been accepted to 10 colleges so far and is in the process of choosing a school.