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Mixing Languages and Making Tamales: A Conversation with Léon

Updated: May 21, 2022

For Léon, a long-time Spanish tutor with Conversations Unbound, switching between languages is like selecting different fillings for a tamale: the corn husk base stays the same, but the flavors and spices change based on the filling you choose. As a talented polylinguist, Léon has found that moving between languages – he knows two Burkinabè dialects, French, English, and Spanish – allows him to express different sides of his personality. This blend of linguistic and cultural influences is the defining concept for his restaurant in Mexico where his dishes put Mexican and Burkinabè culture in conversation with each other, in much the same way that his Conversations Unbound sessions act as the discovery point between him and his students.

What languages do you speak and how did you learn them?

I’m fluent in French, which I learned in elementary school and used throughout my university studies in my country, Burkina Faso. Mooré and Dioula, however, are the dialects I spoke with my family and friends. They’re the local dialects in my birthplace. In secondary school, I learned English, continuing it in university, and in high school, I attended a Catholic school where I learned Latin. We say that Latin is a dead language, but it is the mother language of all the official languages that I speak. Because of my Latin, I believe I’ve been able to learn new languages quickly.

I arrived in Mexico and did not speak a word of Spanish, and the woman I lived with did not speak French or English. This was difficult for me – I needed to speak Spanish at all costs. Each day, I learned a few more words and put together short sentences. Little by little, I learned the language, and after three months, I enrolled at a university in Mexico to study Spanish formally. The students were shocked when they heard me speak. Everyone wanted to know how I had learned the language so quickly and so well.

Do you think learning multiple languages has affected your identity? If so, can you describe how?

We say that language is the door to enter into a society. In my case, I have my original culture, and at the same time, I have access to the cultures of the languages I learn. This allows me to be in the middle of multiple cultures, to share similarities with different types of people, to be accepted, and to understand others. I can often compare these cultures and express different perspectives. I have access to the American viewpoint, the Spanish viewpoint, the French viewpoint, and the African viewpoint, and because of my grasp of these languages, I can get closer to each culture’s attitudes and nuances.

In reality, I don’t see the world just from the view of my original culture – my personality is now shared between different cultures. I’m a blend. I like watching films in French. I enjoy Mexican celebrations. There are certain foods I prefer from African culture. And I prefer working as a telephone receptionist in English. Language has given me an entrypoint into these cultures, and now my life is a reflection of the aspects of these languages and cultures that I enjoy most.

You have mentioned your passion for cooking. What role does language play in your new restaurant?

Language has given me the confidence to open a restaurant with a new genre of food. Food, naturally, is an important part of identity for many cultures. But what’s interesting are the vast similarities between dishes from different cultures. For example, there is a type of meal that they make in Mexico with maize. And here in Mexico, it's called tamale. In Africa, we make this dish with the same preparation and seasoning, but we make it with beans instead of corn. So, at my restaurant, I call them African tamales. And that gives customers a point of reference. "What is this?” They might ask. “Ah, I see. It’s a tamale, but made from beans."

On the other hand, there are African foods that do not have an equivalent in Mexican culture. But by using Spanish names for food, I can reach my customers and introduce them to foods that they know but are cooked with an African flare. Language, then, is very important for inviting your customer to experience a different culture’s cuisine.

The students I tutor are enrolled in traditional language classes in their universities. They learn grammar, they learn vocabulary; they are learning the foundations for Spanish. The issue is that they don’t practice it. In their courses, students do not have the opportunity to really speak, to discuss, and to put into practice what they learn. That’s where I see the value of Conversations Unbound sessions.

The truth is, a student speaks with the most ease about what they already know. My approach is to create space for students to speak naturally, using the Spanish they’ve acquired. I might ask them about their classes, their hobbies, or their passions. Often the students themselves are stunned at their abilities. I always say, “You already know Spanish. You just have to practice by expressing your knowledge.” From the beginning of the semester to the end, I watch students improve naturally as they’re gaining more knowledge in the classroom and applying it in conversations with me. As a tutor, the joy is watching our students improve their speaking in another language. It is a satisfaction that no one can take away from you.

I am really grateful for Conversations Unbound because it was my first experience teaching Spanish and getting to apply this new knowledge. Every session is a cultural and intellectual encounter and language is the channel creating these meaningful experiences. During these sessions, I have learned a lot about the U.S. from my students, but all through the Spanish language. That is a discovery.

This interview was conducted in French and summarized in English by Charlotte Gong.

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