Works by title

Tomas Kalmar

Illegal alphabets and adult literacy: Latino migrants crossing the linguistic border

Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2001.

Openness and necessity in and across language

What is to be Done?


One of the first topics was: tenemos que dominar el inglés, we have to master English. On previous nights it had been "let's learn each other's language." Tonight Juan said that, in his opinion, helping gringos speak Spanish was futile, and others agreed with him. "We've got to concentrate on mastering their way of speaking."

Constantino said "Tenemos que razonar."

I translated this for Danon and Bridget as "we've got to strategize." Razonar is a normal Spanish word, cognate, of course, with reason. Constantino tended to use this word to name the activity of sitting or standing around in a group, thinking things out collectively, proposing a course of action, arguing the pros and cons, and coming to some shared conclusion.

Esequiel introduced another topic: "yo si conozco palabras sueltas, to que no me to sé es pegarlas." [I do know isolated words, what I can't do is stick 'em together.] Others agreed that this was their main problem with English. (To help me translate this idiom for Bridget, Danon and Rob, Juan explained that when you ask a girl to dance in Mexico, she can choose whether to dance suelta or pegada: unattached or clasped in your arms.)

The main difficulty with learning English, said Constantino, was la escritura de inglés. (I still didn't grasp that by escritura, Constantino meant, not only what English teachers means by spelling but also what the French mean by écriture-writing "in the larger sense.") Constantino wanted his companeros to understand that the escritura of English was quite unlike what they imagined, quite different from the escritura of Spanish, quite unlike what they thought of as escritura, period. Constantino said the challenge was to alfabetizar los sonidos. No one seemed to understand what he was talking about.

He appealed to me to help him make his point. Implicitly he invoked the series of conversations he and I had had at previous meetings. He would take me aside and ask me to please just tell him et abecedario de inglés. Thinking he was referring to the alphabet, I would always reply that the abecedario of English and the abecedario of Spanish were one and the same, igualitos. The only difference was little details like the ïi and the 11. After the meetings in the park, however, Constantino had argued with me. The abecedarios of English and Spanish, he had claimed, are not at all the same: the alfabetos are, but the abecedarios are not.

By alfabeto, Constantino meant a set of letters, by abecedario a set of sounds. The letters of the alphabet are the same for English and Spanish, but the relation between letters and sounds, between script and speech are very different. I had finally got it, and I had told him that I'd been to university, but I could not stand there and "alfabetizar los sonidos de ingles": I could not recite the abecedario of English, the phonemes in lexical order. Nor did I know anyone who could.

Breaking the Ice: JUELLULIB

Thinking about the problem of making words stick, and the way the escritura of English misrepresents the blank spaces between words, and trying to explain to Bridget and Danon what the heated conversation in Spanish was all about, I walked to the easel and wrote down, with no comment, the first English words that Panchito had written, in the park, two days after he arrived from Cheran:


Cipriano asked me to say it. I didn't want to. I told him: you can read, you say it. They laughed. Danon asked "Why're they laughing'? What's it say?" Cipriano asked me to ask Danon to say it. She looked at it and said "I can't read this." I translated her response into Spanish. They asked "why can't she read this?" I said "Tal vez es analfabeta"-maybe she's illiterate. More laughter, at the notion that a newspaper reporter is analfabeta and can't read as simple a phrase as JUELLULIB,

Tomas (in English): "They want to know why you can't read this-are you illiterate?"

Now the gringuitas laughed. The joke was shared.

Danon: "I don't know Spanish-that's why I can't read it!"

When I translated this, there was more laughter, at the notion that JUELLULIB is Spanish.

As people wrestled more and more seriously with the paradox that was actually no joke, the conversation became even more lively. Juan and others called JUELLULIB a rompecabezas-a mind-bender, a brain-teaser. Someone else called it a trabalenguas, a tongue-twister. Neither Cipriano nor Danon are analfabetas yet neither can read this word, Cipriano because it's English, and he doesn't speak English, Danon because it's Spanish and she doesn't speak Spanish.

What is this word? ¿Es ingles? ¿Es espanol? Both? Neither?

More and more laughter was shared as people conversed in twos and threes, trying to solve this puzzle, this riddle. I heard Constantino's terms-escritura,abecedario, alfabeto, ortograffa-being taken up and explored by one group after another. Finally, after much teasing, Cipriano got his nerve up and risked reading the word aloud (sightreading the score.) He pronounced the LL (correctly) as [dz] but did not pronounce the final B. Alfonso understood what Cipriano was saying, and smiled. Alfonso turned to Bridget and repeated what Cipriano had just said (i.e. without looking at the easel), addressing it as a bona fide question to Bridget: he really wanted to know where she lived. She in turn had no trouble understanding his question and replied "In Carbondale. Where do you live?"

It was the first face-to-face gringo-mojado exchange of the evening, unmediated by an interpreter. It broke the ice.

Inverting the Hierarchy: DONDEVIVIS

Bridget, Danon, and Rob now wanted to know how to say where d'you live in Spanish. People got up from their seats, and rapidly, as on many previous evenings, groups formed with one gringo per group. Cipriano and Alfonso helped Bridget practice ¿donde vives? Esequiel, Froilan, and Pascual, helped Danon; Constantino and Juan helped Rob (who really had learned this phrase in the past already-more than once.)

When Constantino heard Bridget asking Cipriano to write it down, he intervened and suggested that Bridget learn the phrase liricamente (like Jacinto in the park, and like Alfredo and his song) and then write it down in her own escritura.

Bridget and Danon conferred, jotted down some attempts on paper and then Bridget wrote on the easel:


First some men expressed polite surprise that two reporters could make such simple spelling errors. Others then said that although it was not correcto it was bueno. All the men (except Alfonso) had had less than six years of schooling in Mexico. But this was sufficient for them all to feel sure that there should be a space between E and V (DONDE • VIVES) porque no es una sola palabra, sino dos-because it's not just one word, it's two. And that the last vowel se escribe con la e -is written as E not I. Juan concluded that Bridget and Danon's problem with Spanish was the same as his problem with English: como se pegan ]as palabras, how words stick to one another.

Alfonso, who had so far said much less than usual and had been watching the proceedings pensively, now explained that there are five vocales (vowels) in Spanish but that there are many more in English and they're not the same as the Spanish vocales, and that this was probably why Bridget and Danon failed to distinguish between the first and second silabas (syllables) of vives. Constantino said no, it's the other way aroud, vivis had two few vocales, not too many. The problem, he argued, was that the escrituras of English and Spanish are dos sistemas distintos, two different systems. He asked Bridget and Danon how many vowels there are in English. Bridget and Danon said they didn't know. Rob said he didn't either. Constantino looked at me and I felt that I could read in his eyes that he finally believed me that gringos, even newspaper reporters, could not recite the abecedario of English.

Constantino was Alfonso's tio politico (roughly, uncle-in-law as distinct from tio carnal, uncle by blood). Alfonso had finished high school but he maintained a modest demeanor of respeto in Constantino's presence. The two of them now had a quiet conversation together and then Alfonso asked Bridget, in English, "how many words?" pointing to JUELLULIB.

Bridget wrote down WHERE DO YOU LIVE under JUELLULIB.



"Cuatro palabras," said Alfonso to Constantino. Everyone stared in silence at the surprising contrast between two escrituras, two ways of writing the same thing, one bueno but not correcto, the other correcto but not bueno.

[p. 19-22]

This case could be thought about in relation to another, possibly more "writerly" (Fiske 1989), play with languages and spellings: Mots d’heures : Gousses, Rames (for more information about this see also this site)

Tuesday, April 16, 2002