What Is Your Favorite Word?

What Is Your Favorite Word?

Are you someone who loves words? Do you delight in discovering new words or trying to translate them into different languages? Do you enjoy using slang or exploring how language has evolved over time?

Is there one word, in any language, that feels especially beautiful, interesting or meaningful to you? What memories or emotions come to mind when you think it or say it?

In “Some Words Feel Truer in Spanish,” Natalia Sylvester writes about words and how they have the power to connect us across continents and cultures:

My earliest relationship with language was defined by rules. As an immigrant who came to this country from Peru at age 4, I spent half of my days in kindergarten occupied with learning the rules of the English language. There was the tricky inconsistency of pronunciation to navigate and, once I learned to speak it, the challenge of translating what I’d learned into reading skills.

At home, my mom would often create games to help my sister and me preserve our Spanish and improve our grammar. Driving around our neighborhood in Miami, she’d point at a traffic light, hold up four fingers and say, “Se-ma-fo-roon which syllable do you put the accent?”

Each language had its defined space: English in school, Spanish at home. But as my parents became more fluent (and my sister and I more dominant) in English, the boundaries became blurred. Being bilingual empowered us to break barriers beyond the rules and definitions attached to words. Some things were simply untranslatable, because they spoke to this new space we were living in — within, between and around language. We were making a new home here, same as so many immigrants who end up shaping language as much as it shapes us.

It became evident as the phrase “Cómo se dice?” or “How do you say?” became a constant in my home. Sometimes, it’d be my parents who asked, “How do you say” followed by a word like “sobremesa” or “ganas.” It seemed simple enough in theory, but proved nearly impossible for us to translate without elaborating using full sentences or phrases. After all, to have a word to describe a long conversation that keeps you at the table and extends a meal, you’d have to value the concept enough to name it. Some ideas are so embedded in Latin American and Spanish cultures that they exist implicitly. Of course “ganas” can be something you feel but also give, and be at once more tame yet more powerful than “desire.” (If you know, you know.)

Other times, it’d be my sister and I who were curious about a word’s Spanish counterpart. Was there really no differentiating in Spanish between the fingers (dedos) on our hands, and those on our feet we call toes? When we wanted to say we were excited about something, the word “emocionada” seemed to fall short of capturing our specific, well, emotion. Sometimes we would blank on a word. But sometimes, we would find that the perfect word isn’t necessarily in the language we’re speaking.

She explains further, using the Spanish word “maleta,” or “suitcase” in English, as an example:

This year, I was at a writing conference and met up with two Mexican American authors, one of whom brought her suitcase to the venue because she had already checked out of the hotel. We walked the halls and offered to help with her maleta, making several jokes and references to it, but never once using the word “suitcase,” despite speaking mainly in English.

This was an entirely natural and unspoken decision. There are some words that simply feel truer in Spanish than they do in English. I call these home words and heart words because I associate them with the place I most grew up using them: at home, among family. Though the words might share a literal definition with their translation, one version carries emotional depth that enriches its meaning. To code switch this way among friends implies we share not only a language, but an intimate understanding of where we come from.

A suitcase is for clothes and possessions when someone travels, but to me, a maleta meant family had arrived from Peru, carrying flavors, textures and memories of my birthplace. Language is rooted in context, which is another way of saying that language is driven by memory. In this way, what we do or don’t choose to translate is another way of telling stories about our past.

Students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • Do you have a favorite word, or a word that feels especially meaningful to you, in any language? What is it? Why do you love it? Do you have a story, like the one Ms. Sylvester shared about the word “maleta,” that illustrates what your favorite word means to you?

  • Ms. Sylvester says there are some words that feel “truer” to her in Spanish. Do you speak more than one language? If so, are there words that feel “truer” to you in one language versus another? Why do you think that is? Can you give an example?

  • Ms. Sylvester writes about “code switching,” or the act of shifting from one language or dialect to another, particularly based on social context. Do you often find yourself using different words, or even different languages, depending on where you are and whom you’re with? In what dialect or language do you most feel a sense of comfort and belonging? Why?

  • “Words are just sounds and letters until we collectively give them meaning through story,” Ms. Sylvester ends the essay. “When we use language to connect, it’s one of the most beautiful things that make us human.” Do you agree? What power do words and language hold for you?

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.