Little did Toni Roberts know that her decision to study Spanish at school would turn into a life-long love for a language that has since given her confidence, creativity and, above all, joy.
Learning another language is a tricky thing. It’s a labour of love, gymnastics for the brain. It takes time and effort and determination. You need to spend time with the language, learn its personality and its quirks. But as time goes on, and you start to live with the language more and more, you notice yourself morphing. You become a chimera, existing with both parts simultaneously and shifting between them. This is the story of my relationship with Spanish and how it became part of my identity.
I’ve been learning Spanish since the age of eleven. At first, I didn’t take it too seriously – it was a compulsory subject I had to study at school and that was all. But as time went on, the moment came when I had to make a decision about what GCSEs I would choose. I knew that being able to speak another language provides advantages in life, and the two languages I had to choose from were Spanish and French. My heart was set on French. I had a great love of the French language, having studied it throughout my primary school education and taken part in a French exchange in Paris. At times, my sister and I even pretended to be French. We used the fact that her name is Rochelle, a French name, as an access point, and it was her great ambition to visit the southwestern coastal city of La Rochelle – her namesake. But, despite my strong feelings and attachment to the French language, my teachers advised me to take Spanish because my grades were much higher. (I put this down to my teacher because I have very little memory of learning anything in my French lessons. Instead, I remember her using our classes as an opportunity to impart her wisdom of the world on us using, of all things, English.)
So, from that point on I was set on the path of taking Spanish more seriously. After my GCSEs I studied it at A-Level where I really started to fall in love. We were introduced to the great Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca and studied his last play La casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba, which I’ve written about here). I fell for his work then and that play is still one of my all-time favourites. We also studied the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Her plight and struggle after the terrible accident she endured inspired me. Her strength and her determination, and her ability to find purpose in life solidified her as a personal icon – as she is for many people. I started to listen to Spanish music and watch Spanish films and TV series. One of my favourites was Física o química (Physics or Chemistry). It was a long-running show in the vein of Skins that held my heart in the warmth of its palm. I learnt so many expressions from that show that I would never have learnt in school.
Moving to my university education, I chose to do a joint degree in English Language and Spanish, as I didn’t want to lose the language I’d grown to love. In my third year I completed a year abroad at the University of Granada in Spain’s southern Andalusia region. I was unsure at first about going abroad for a year and being away from my friends and family, but the pros outweighed the cons and it turned out to be the best thing I could have done. I was completely immersed in Spanish life, culture and language. I lived in a university residence with Spanish students, and intuitively picked up their mannerisms and expressions – I was becoming Spanishified. I picked up the local accent to the extent that I fooled actual Spanish natives. There were even times I forgot the words for things in English because I was so used to calling them by their names in Spanish. I felt welcomed. I’ve been back to Granada since completing my year abroad there and it felt like I was going back to my second home.
I left Granada in 2016, which feels like a lifetime ago, but my experience there still impacts my life to this day. I’m a different person now; I feel like I’ve adopted a new identity. Living in London, I still go about my day predominantly speaking my mother tongue – English. Yet, my English has become infused with Spanish. I find myself code-switching frequently without meaning to, reacting to things with Spanish sounds and sometimes unable to read English. There are certain Spanish words that I use almost daily, saying them to my family and friends who don’t understand. I use frescito, which refers to a coldness or chill that is pleasant and refreshing. I often find myself wondering how I used to express this type of coldness before I knew Spanish because I now never use English words to express this feeling. The word pobrecito/a (like ‘poor thing’ in English) has also become part of my everyday vocabulary. This is probably down to an economical use of language since there is one word in Spanish to express something that needs two in English.
Even so, I often find myself having conversations with myself in my second language and dreaming in it. This new identity has caused my parents to notice a difference in me when I converse in Spanish. They believe I’m more confident and open. This new identity has also affected my ability to spell. There are times I find myself spelling words like ‘consequence’ with ‘cu’ – as it is in Spanish – instead of with ‘qu’. Other times, I’ll read English words as though they are Spanish words. I remember being so confused reading a word and thinking “What is this word? What does it mean?” before realising I was reading an English word using Spanish sounds. Grammar stops being solely learnt and starts to become intuitive. You know to use por (for) and not para (also ‘for’) in certain contexts because it just sounds right. The grammar of the language is internalised like that of your native language.
Music has always been a part of my life – I play three instruments – and I used to have ambitions of being in a band. Inspired by the French singer Christine and the Queens, whose songs are often bilingual, I thought about writing bilingual songs myself. It was easy. I created both bilingual songs and songs solely in Spanish. I started noticing how Spanish words and sounds produced a different feeling to their English equivalents. Syllables and sounds are integral to the rhythm of a song, and I found that I could do things with Spanish words that I couldn’t with English and vice versa. I also listen to a lot of Spanish-language music. One of my favourite artists at the moment is Spanish urban-flamenco singer Rosalía. I love singing and speaking in my beloved Romance language; I love how the words feel in my mouth. When Spanish flows from my lips, my other identity comes to the surface. I feel a difference in my body and my spirit.
Learning a language enriches you, gives you a new perspective on life and changes your soul. Really getting to know a language and the people who speak it creates another side to you. You gain a new identity and personality. Your mouth, your tongue, your jaw are all affected. Your thoughts, your dreams, your forms of expression are too. But you don’t lose yourself; you gain a new self so that you are more than you were. Now you have a new, additional identity.
About Toni Roberts
Toni Roberts is a writer from and based in London. She primarily writes plays and had a short play performed as part of The Platform at The Bread & Roses Theatre, which ran on 23rd and 24th February 2020. She studied English Language and Spanish at the University of Westminster where she first got into playwriting and has recently expanded her writing range to include poetry and essays. Follow Toni on Twitter @tonihroberts and on Instagram @toniroberts
This piece was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages
Submissions are now closed for this series. Read all work for Life in Languages here.
Feature image is a detail from Joan Miro’s Ciphers and Constellations, in Love with a Woman (1941), gouache, Art Institute of Chicago, US.