1125: English by Janel Pineda

20240524 Slowdown

1125: English by Janel Pineda


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Over dinner, a colleague suggested that universities were justified in cutting language programs. “English is the lingua franca of business,” they said, “Why should American students study a language they are not likely to use?” For all sorts of reasons, my jaw dropped, my fork hung midair, I was shocked; mainly at the explicit cultural hegemony that informed his perspective.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that by 2019, 651 foreign-language programs had been cut from college curricula over a three-year period. I didn’t need the report to witness what I’ve seen firsthand. The teaching contracts of colleagues who taught Italian, Polish, and Arabic languages not being renewed.

This is so different from previous generations of college administrators, who thought that a well-rounded education included the ability to speak a non-English language. To them, the benefits were obvious: second and third languages increased awareness of the human family, enhanced our worldview, made us better thinkers, taught us respect for other cultures, and served as the basis for understanding our history in relation to another.

I thought of my high school French class with Mr. Piagini. Year round, he wore ruffled pants, tweed jackets, topped off with an elegant silk neck scarf. Mr. Piagini gave us our dose of the French Revolution of 1789 alongside verb conjugations. But he also wanted to hear the idioms we spoke in the streets like “fresh” and “dope.” So, language learning for me was grounded in a kind of cultural exchange.

And yet, my childhood friends who learned English as a second language were not so lucky. The challenges of growing up were made difficult by the imperative to speak English. Today’s poem brilliantly figures the psychological complexities of adopting a new language, and a way of thinking, while losing another.

by Janel Pineda

It made
		its home					                                            hovering
                                                            around my body
                                              the first four years of my life 
                                      Sometimes, it tired
                                                                                       and rested
                                                 in my shadow
                                                                                       trailed slimy red and sticky but
                                                 always					                     waited
                                                                 knew my hatred would pass 
                                                                 that I'd find my way to its lap
                                                                 I'd rest my head on its shoulder 
                                      curl up against fragmented bone
                                                                 and let it dig its hands around my spine

                                     English was patient     because it knew 
                                 it would win		           in this country
                                                                                       I wouldn't 
                                 be able to resist much longer

                                                                                       Sometimes I can still hear 
                                                                                       English's cackling
                                                                                       when at four years old
                                                                                       I proclaimed:
                                                                                                                ¡No me hable así! 
                                                                 ¡Yo no hablo ingles y nunca lo hablare!

                                 Weeks later			       in kindergarten
                                 I let English reign over 		
                                                                                       my body
                                 let myself soak		       in its liquid power
dizzied myself in this winding river   made its waters the language I tell stories in
		built a home in its classes	                      declared a major in its body

chased it up the Thames     	to the world's oldest English-speaking university
		tossed away Spanish	     reserved it for Saturdays	    sometimes 
or visits to grandma's
and even now	      the only Spanish that lives in this poem is faint 
memory	                the
words of a younger		                       braver   self

                                                 and now I'm afraid
                                                 'cause I bet English is sitting 
                                                 somewhere in this room
                                                                 clutching its stomach 
                                                 rolling over in laughter
                                                           at how I typed these words 
                                                           sometimes first in Spanish
                                                           then backspaced my return to English.

                                                 English laughs

                                                 and laughs

                                                 and laughs.

“English” by Janel Pineda. Used by permission of the poet.