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Remember the Alamo! Reflections on the Americanization of a Mexican

  • Date: 04/03/2001
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: The University of Akron Distinguished Lecture Series at The Indiana Center for Intercultural Communication
  • Thank you, Jerry, for your thoughtful and much-too-kind introduction.

    And thanks to all of you at the Indiana Center for Intercultural Communication for inviting me to be part of your Distinguished Lecture Series.

    It's good to be back in Indiana, and to have an opportunity to visit with so many of my colleagues here at IUPI and at Purdue.

    I was delighted, of course, to be included in Diane Belcher and Ulla Connor's new book, Reflections on Multiliterate Lives, as it gave me the opportunity to do something I had never really done, namely to reflect back on the struggles and successes associated with my learning a second language.

    W. Steven Brown, author of a well-known management book, once said that, "Communication does not begin with being understood, but with understanding others."

    I certainly agree, but I submit to you that to understand others, you first have to speak their language!

    The title of my talk, "Remember the Alamo: Reflections on the Americanization of a Mexican" is intended to focus attention on two aspects of my experiential memory.

    The phrase "Remember the Alamo" is what kids would say when I first came to the U.S. in wanting to taunt me about my heritage.

    I am not sure I can tell you why, but I had the gumption to reply, "Remember who won!"

    Perhaps I was not aware that American History does not treat Santa Anna as kindly as Jim Bowie and Davy Crocket, but for whatever reason I was sufficiently emboldened then and have remained so to this day.

    The second part of the title calls to mind a 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews and James Gardner, entitled "The Americanization of Emily," that symbolizes much of my early education here in the U.S.

    It makes me recall my infatuation with Julie Andrews, who played Emily, and reminds me of the powerful words spoken by James Gardner's character as he challenged the concept of a hero to Emily's mother in the movie.

    Anyway, to be true to the title, what I want to do this afternoon is to share some reflections on that emboldened process of my Americanization.

    I will emphasize some aspects of my English language acquisition and communication that I hope may be useful to this audience, because they may function as lessons learned.

    In other words, my talk is intended to be the sort of "auto-ethnography" that Belcher and Connor speak of in their book, but it is fair to tell you that I also will provide you with some annotations and side trips in directions that I hope you may find beneficial as well.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that I am not a scholar of language acquisition. Rather, I am an educator, a neurobiologist, and a student of politics as well as of many other human endeavors that has today become wrapped up into this package of university president.

    I should tell you that I was born in Mexico and that Spanish was my native language.

    Yet, that for all practical purposes, I have spoken English for most of my life-in fact for 45 of my 56 years.

    I should tell you, also, that I see myself largely as a product of an eclectic American education; that I am a generalist in spirit; and that if I am successful in my adopted language, it has been by necessity, experience and practice.

    I began to travel at age four, and as early as age eight, I was more interested in being a citizen of the world than of any particular country. I could not understand why we could not have a global passport or no passport at all.

    In the ensuing years, my travels have taken me to some unconventional places, such as Siberia, Greenland, and Antarctica. And, I have lived in more places than most people even have a chance to visit.

    Indeed, I have often felt like Derek Wolcott's "Fortunate Traveler," although at times my career has seemed less of a travelogue and more like a trip through a pinball machine. Fortunately, not one has that tilted very often.

    To all of us who are multilingual, language acquisition has indeed meant some or a lot of travel, and we can call attention with pride and amusement, "Look how far we have come, both literally and figuratively!"

    I began to study English in the 1st Grade, as was then already the common practice in Mexico and in many places around the world.

    I came to the United States at age 11 to attend the Riverside Military Academy, a boarding school in Gainesville, Georgia, beginning my studies there in the 7th grade.

    My Cuban father, who had lived in New York City during the 20's and 30's, thought that I should learn English better and benefit from a U.S. education.

    Of course, not just anyplace would do for my studies, because he feared that if I went too far north I might be too cold; whereas if I went too far south or southwest, I might find so much Spanish speaking influence that I might never learn English!

    And so, after perusing the catalogues of many schools in the Southeast, we settled on Riverside Military Academy . . . with neither he nor I perhaps fully knowing of the accented difference of southern English.

    By the way, it came as a great surprise to me that the accent of rural Indiana and Ohio is as southern as what you will hear down south.

    Surprisingly, therefore, even though I spent the first nine years of my U.S. life in Georgia, and coincidentally returned to Georgia for another 15 years after my PhD, somehow I did not acquire a southern accent.

    But then, as my wife likes to say, being southern is contextual, not congenital!

    Indeed, recognition of the governing linguistic conventions of a context, and adaptability to that context, has been a fortuitous and useful asset in my life.

    While English is my second language, I never considered communicating in English as being more difficult than in Spanish - at least certainly not after a short early period of transition into full time usage of English.

    That first couple of years in the U.S. that allowed me to transition to English also provided me with my first comparative observation about education, because it was a full two years after coming to the United States before I learned anything substantively new in school, other than a better command of English.

    You see, I discovered that Mexico's education system is more comparable to European countries than to the States.

    First, English as a second language was required right from first grade . . .

    And, second, there is a greater degree of compression in the Mexican education system, meaning that they teach more in a shorter period of time than what is common in the United States.

    So I had a full two years in which to focus my energies on bettering my English language skills before beginning to be taxed by new academic material.

    For a while in those first couple of years, the biggest difficulty was in capturing the meanings of words from among the many nuances of accents and colloquialisms.

    By the end of the first year, I felt very much at ease, although I still made occasional mistakes in the usage of some terms and in regard to what was deemed acceptable or proper usage.

    I remember, for example, that someone put sulfur on the hot radiator of my room, and as you know, sulfur does not smell good when heated.

    As I tried to describe this smell, I found that the school's commandant of cadets was not particularly sympathetic to my description; rather, he thought that I was merely flaunting a newly acquired four-letter word.

    Those of us who are multilingual already know that we can get into linguistic trouble in different places, even those that speak the same language, because often the same words will have separate meanings.

    Indeed, we would all do well to remember that each language is hardly the same across the country or the world. Last year, for example, those who traveled to Australia for the Olympics certainly learned that.

    Throughout Latin America, a Spanish word that is perfectly neutral in Mexico can be an insult in Colombia, Chile or Argentina. And there are special and different words for many common objects that differ among countries. For example, the common word for "bus" is "guagua" in Cuba, "camion" in central Mexico, and "bus" along towns bordering the U.S.

    So navigating those nuances and some literal translations is a continuing challenge.

    Again, for example, I remember an instance in the late 60's when I was asked to translate for a U.S. scientist at a psychology conference in Mexico.

    There is an area in experimental psychology in which scientists are commonly referred to as "rat psychologists."

    Well, in trying to promptly translate that phrase, I used the literal translation, and said "Psicologos Rateros," only to find that I had just managed to call everyone there "thieving psychologists" because that is the common understanding of the literal translation "rateros."

    But things of that nature happen in various settings, and I am sure that many of you have your own stories. However, we adapt and learn, and we move forward.

    All in all, I never felt that Spanish hindered my development of English.

    By the time I got to college, Spanish had become, in a sense, my second language and English my first.

    Today, I even dream in English. The only thing that I still do in Spanish, occasionally, is my multiplication tables, because that is how I learned them.

    I have kept my fluency in Spanish, but it is now limited only to conversational Spanish.

    And while I can hold my own, anything beyond that requires help.

    On the other hand, I feel that Spanish has enriched my usage of English, both in writing and in speaking.

    Certainly the rhythm and beauty of Spanish has influenced how I try to use English, and even though many people do not consider English to be an aesthetically pleasing language, I have always found it so.

    And the interplay of both languages in my life has created many added dimensions of language competency and aesthetics well beyond those I have normally encountered among native speakers of English.

    For example, I have particularly enjoyed the fact that there are some unique words in both Spanish and English that have no equivalents in the other. Thus, some Spanish words continue to rise to the surface for some special feelings or situations. (e.g. empalagado)

    And key distinctions between difficult words, such as "affect and effect" and "principal and principle," among others, come easy to me.

    Professionally, first as a scientist and now as a university president, communication in English has become the core of what I do.

    Thus, from the perspective of learning how to communicate, you might well ask what I consider to be the formative experiences that have brought me to this point.

    I am sure I can not even begin to list some that may have been critical to my developing my communicative skills, but the chance you have given me to reflect back over my experience did make four types of experiences stand out.

    First, there were the progressive leadership roles I assumed in military school, which provided many opportunities to use language to challenge and inspire and, by the way, also caused me to learn how to project my voice forcefully enough to be heard by 500 cadets.

    Second, there were assignments in Washington, D.C. and in the office of the president at the University of Georgia, both of which showed me how much more I enjoyed working on behalf of others than in the laboratory, and both of which taught me to write effectively and convincingly.

    Third, there were the many opportunities and good fortune to observe, emulate and learn from others, some of the best in the business, both writers and presenters, including my parents; my wife, Theresa; and many others, still to this very day.

    For example, I learn often from the fine writing exhibited in the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, or in Foreign Affairs, . . . and from the speeches I might hear or read, including the many and always unique commencement addresses that Steve Beering used to do at Purdue - a practice that I now follow at The University of Akron.

    And fourth, there were the many opportunities that I have been given to practice and to continue to hone my communication skills.

    As you can imagine, communicating is largely what presidents do, day in and day out, and these four experiences have served me well.

    There is perhaps one other element that I should share, because somehow, the same emboldenment of my youthful "remember who won" retort provided another kind of advantage . . . a kind of personable fearlessness . . . a kind of easy first name familiarity that at once unites and endears with others, but sometimes enrages those not yet comfortable with themselves.

    From the vantage point of these four categories of experience, let me now share three fundamentals lessons I have learned about communication.

    First, tell the truth. "Truth in advertising!" This may seem obvious, but it is the one rule you cannot violate, and yet it is one rule that many people do violate. If you are going to be credible and if your message is going to have lasting value, whatever you say has to be objectively supportable. It has to be the truth.

    Second, remember that the business of communication is like talking to a parade. Your message has to be simple, brief and repeatable. Repetition helps! That is the power of a smartly crafted slogan and of the properly selected "sound bite."

    And, third, take a new look at the obvious, because a good message will jolt you into seeing things as if for the first time. It will arouse your sense of WOW!

    I call this "the strangeness of the familiar," and this is something we have all experienced.

    Think about it. As the driver of a car, you know the streets you use to get home or to work. But if you ride as a passenger down those same streets, or if you walk, you suddenly see things you never saw when you were the driver. It is, indeed, as if you are seeing things for the first time.

    And that is precisely what I mean by the "strangeness of the familiar."

    But why do I tell you this? Because effective communication relies on creating sense of WOW! A sense of novelty that becomes useful to the listener.

    Let me digress for a moment, because, ironically, we Americans are becoming too comfortable and complacent with the ease with which English seems to be spreading around the world.

    I believe we should not lose sight of the fact that English is still only a small part of a very big and complex world, nor of the fact that our ability to communicate with other cultures has never been more important than it is today.

    Indeed, while much of our information sharing is now done in English, we should not necessarily assume that it will one day become the global language.

    Even though English is widely spoken throughout the world and serves as the common language of science and of aviation, consider the fact that there are " . . . three times as many native speakers of Chinese as native speakers of English," according to Barbara Wallraff in a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly.

    Indeed, there are 15 times more people in the world whose native language is other than English! And, what is more, Ms. Wallraff points out that there is ". . .a dizzying array of eventualities that could (still) transform the world language picture."
    (Atlantic Monthly, November 2000, p 52-66)

    We are just now beginning to understand the process of globalization - a process by which people of the world are moving increasingly towards one another - and a process that will surely have many unintended and unexpected consequences.

    Globalization involves dimensions of social, cultural, technological, and economic change, which characterize the movement of our civilization away from the parochial and toward the global or universal.

    Dimensions that involve the vast array of technological change, our movement to a global economy, and the pervasiveness of new information tools . . . all creating for us radically new sets of capabilities and the kind of social adjustments so well articulated by Peter Drucker in his 1994 Atlantic Monthly magazine article entitled The Age of Social Transformations.
    (Atlantic Monthly, The Age of Social Transformations, 1994)

    In his new book, The Global Me, author G. Pascal Zachary argues that globalization is making it "possible to have both 'roots' and 'wings' - to develop meaningful affiliations without renouncing one's origins."
    (As reviewed by Alex Soonjung-Kim Pang, Atlantic Monthly, November 2000, p. 118-119)

    Since globalization transcends national boundaries, these affiliations are characterized by "hybridization" - transnational partnerships and expertise, expanded and workable skills in several languages, and in-depth knowledge of other cultures.

    Where I live in Northeast Ohio, being multilingual, and truly fluent in two or more languages, is increasingly common among the executives of global corporations.

    For example, Sam Gibara, the chairman and CEO of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company is from Egypt, but has spent most of his professional life in France, England and the U.S.

    Hector Ortino, chairman and CEO of the Ferro Corp., another polymer concern, is from Argentina and is fluent in English as well as Spanish.

    Indeed, some of you may be aware that the late Roberto Goizueta of Coca-Cola was born in Cuba, and from a base in Atlanta, operated one of the truly global corporations.

    Often, however, the terms globalization and internationalization are used interchangeably and without further thought when, in reality, each refers to very different phenomena that "are actually opposed."

    In a recent article, Globalization and Higher Education: Challenges for the 21st Century, Peter Scott, vice chancellor of Kingston University in London, argues that "Internationalization reflects a world-order dominated by nation states," whereas . . .

    Globalization, on the other hand, transcends international borders and political subdivisions . . . and involves an "intensified collaboration" as well as "a global division of labor."

    "Globalization . . ." according to Scott, "implies a radical reordering of the status quo as new regional blocs emerge and old enemies become new allies (and vice versa) and national boundaries are rendered obsolete by the transgressive tendencies of high technology and mass culture." Those of us trying to "internationalize" the curriculum of our universities would do well to keep these differences in mind.

    What globalization is forging for us linguistically is already apparent in the behavior or many multilingual cultures, where the terms of two languages begin to merge and to become used across members of both language groups, but particularly by their children.

    Witness Los Angeles or New York. Witness Hong Kong or Vancouver, London or Paris, Mexico City and countless other places around the world.

    All of this, after all, is about better communication. So let me close with a brief focus on just that point.

    In this month's issue of Harper's Magazine, David Fortner Wallace presents a fascinating essay that is in many ways structured as a "review" of Bryan A. Garner's, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.

    Wallace's essay, entitled Tense Present: Democracy, English and the Wars Over Usage, is at once difficult and simple in its instructiveness. I recommend it to you.

    He ends with a quote from Garner's Preface to the Dictionary, which I found useful: "The reality I care about most is that some people still want to use the language well. They want to write effectively; they want to speak effectively. They want their language to be graceful at times and powerful at times. They want to understand how to use words well, how to manipulate sentences, and how to move about in the language without seeming to flail. They want good grammar, but they want more: they want rhetoric in the traditional sense. That is, they want to use the language deftly so that it's fit for their purposes."

    Among the few things that I remember of the history of Mexico is a phrase attributed to its first president, Benito Juarez: "El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz" - "respect for the rights of others is peace."

    We build that respect out of shared knowledge.

    And language is the medium.

    You can depend on it.

    Thank you!


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