In linguistics, there is a theory of relativity called the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which holds that language shapes one’s worldview and cognition. The most extreme version of this hypothesis states that language goes so far as to determine thought that speakers of different languages construct entirely different planes of understanding.
“No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality,” wrote linguist Edward Sapir. “The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.”
Up until this year, I had only inhabited one world, English, and I wondered just how my life would change if I gained access to another language. My wonder was not just out of curiosity, but also of longing.
My grandfather died last fall at the age of 94, and with his passing, all hope of us connecting on an equal plane of language. His world — azure waters, emerald lizards and pearl beaches — was a mundo incongruous with mine. His reality was constructed in Cuba, followed by the inexorable loss of his Havana home and unstable resettlement in New York. My grandfather lived another 50 years in America, where I came to know him, but it was his years of transition between the two countries that defined my understanding of his life. The stories of repression and flight, and later of resettlement struggles and prejudice will always be clear in my mind, but they will never be clear enough. The issue lies in how the stories came to me: all secondhand, and all translated. These stories that raised me were experienced in Spanish, but told to me in English, and told to me by others. I could say I knew the tales of my grandfather, but would Edward Sapir agree?
While my reality had always been in America, I longed to know his history because it spawned a life for my mother, and, ultimately, for me. I owed him for much of what I had, and with that debt brought a responsibility to understand him as best I could. Although he was gone, I could not give up on that obligation, nor did I want to. I thought that inhabiting his Spanish world would bring me closer to him. Surely some subtle, untranslatable insight was waiting to connect us. And so, eight months after he died, I traveled to Spain.
My grandfather might never have been to Spain, but his parents were born and raised in Asturias, on the northern coast. They went to Cuba on their honeymoon, and they loved the country so much they decided never to leave. The two died on Cuban soil, remaining true to their promise. My grandfather, however, left Cuba for the last time when he was 43-years-old, and if he had made any promises about remaining, they were all broken by Fidel Castro.
I learned Spanish at a university in Bilbao, about a three-hour car ride from Asturias. I lived in a quiet suburb of the city with a host mother who spoke no English. We ate our meals together and spent our evenings watching Spanish-dubbed movies and TV shows. Living with her forced me not only to know Spanish, but to think Spanish. We fell into a native rhythm of conversation, and I stopped translating from English in my head. I would leave the house for long walks along la ría, the estuary beside the old shipyards, now replaced by glimmering steel and manicured parks. The city spoke, sometimes roared, through its cafes, bakeries and bus stops — incredibly, I had learned enough to listen. I was living my own stories in Spanish, and the world I inhabited in Bilbao was distinct from the one in my English-speaking home. There was a kind of power that went along with that other-worldliness. I was living two lives at once, and I did not want to leave.
On my last weekend in Spain, I went south from Bilbao to Madrid, and spent a long car ride with a Spanish college student. She was studying at a university in Madrid, and we compared our experiences as undergraduates in two distinct countries. What struck me as the biggest difference is the way she and her peers approached language. She learned three — English, French and Basque — and many of her friends taught themselves four or more. She explained that their attitude is motivated by people, by the millions of humans made accessible through learning a new language — and this attitude could not have differed more from my own. She learned three languages for millions of people; I learned Spanish for one.
On the plane ride back to New York, the city my grandfather fled to so many years ago, I contemplated what learning Spanish has done for me. And yet, nothing had changed. My grandfather lived and died. Then I learned Spanish. The two clauses were each contained in their own distinct spheres; they did not overlap. My grandfather is dead, and I will never understand him as much as I want to, regardless of whether I become fluent in Spanish, or if I never speak another word of Spanish again.
As Sapir would tell me, I have started to inhabit his world, even without him in it. The Spanish world is one of stunning color and complexity and beauty. For the first time in my life, I do not feel like an outlier against this vibrancy. In Bilbao the culture became my own, and I made a deep bond to a place that once seemed foreign. Although I could not find the familial connection I had hoped for in Spain, the process of searching gave me a connection to millions of Spanish speakers, who have drawn me closer to their world. In a way, it is similar to how my great-grandparents became enamored with Cuba so many years ago — we both visited somewhere new and absolved never to leave. Someday I know my travels will bring me to Cuba, back to their idyll and to my grandfather’s paradise lost. It is the place where all those stories beyond myself begin, and where I’d like to find some sense of an end.