Imperfect Tense

Poems by
Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor


Oaxaca 2014 
Photo credit: Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor

An Overview: Purpose, aims and focus of Imperfect Tense

     According to the 2012 U.S. Census, there were 38.3 million Spanish speakers age five and older who speak Spanish at home, representing a 121% increase since 1990[1]. 62% of those who speak non-English languages at home are Spanish speakers compared to the next largest group of Chinese speakers at 4.8%[2]. As of July 2013, the Census Bureau reports that the Hispanic population constitutes 17% of the U.S. population or 54 million people and growing[3]. While not all Latinos speak Spanish, many of them do as do so many American youth and adults who acquire Spanish as a second or additional language. Currently, the U.S. is ranked the fifth largest Spanish speaking country in the world following Mexico with 117 million Spanish speakers; Spain with 47.2 million; Columbia with 47 million; Argentina with 41 million, and the U.S. with 37.6 million[4].

     Not only is the Spanish language widely present and actively used among immigrant communities, it is also the most commonly studied foreign language among U.S. high school and college students. For example, 68.7% of those who study a foreign language in grades 7-12 chose Spanish (Draper & Hicks, 2002:2) A majority, 53 % of the 1.4 million students enrolled in college language courses in fall 2002, chose Spanish as their world language of study (Welles, 2004). The 2009 MLA report on foreign language enrollment shows that higher education enrollment in Spanish surpassed all other languages combined by 100,646 (Furman, Goldberg, & Lusin, 2010: 3 & 14)

     With large numbers of immigrant speakers and Spanish language learners one might think the U.S. was well on its way to national bilingualism. However, it appears that bilingualism is largely a short-lived, one-way street where immigrant communities acquire English and ultimately lose Spanish language proficiency by the third generation (Veltman, 2000). Swender (2003) found disheartening bilingual outcomes among American-born students in University settings where only 47% of foreign language majors were rated at Advanced proficiency levels on standardized scores. Why is this so? What factors contribute to a persistently monolingual U.S. identity, one that fails to acquire the non-English language proficiency or view second languages as long-lasting, additive resources? What happens when American adults persist in their Spanish language acquisition pursuits?

     The following poems address the last of these questions. They were written as poetic inquiry within a year-long ethnographic study of American adults (over 25+) studying Spanish in Oaxaca, Mexico.   These poems represent the first section of my poetry manuscript, also titled “Imperfect Tense,” where each lyric or prose poem speaks to the others about the challenges and possibilities of bilingualism for U.S.-born adults. Taken together, these poems engage in current discourses about who gets to become bilingual and remain bilingual and grapple with aspects of language, culture, identity and power. The title, “Imperfect Tense” refers to rules of “aspect” particular to Spanish (that do not occur in English) that distinguish references to the “imperfect verb tense,” or enduring past (she was married over time) versus the “preterite tense” which refers to a fixed moment in the past (e.g. she was married on June 1, 2013).[5] But the title also refers to the dual meaning of “tense” regarding foreign language education—how imperfectly it is often taught but also how imperfectly U.S.-born Americans (mis)understand the second language acquisition process. Despite such imperfections, it is also important to document the processes of those who challenge monolingual norms and pursue second language acquisition at home in the U.S. or abroad.

[1] Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 American Community Survey: Table B16001 and Table DP02<> and Language Use in the United States: 2012

[2] Source: Language Use in the United States: 2011 by Camille Ryan issued in August 2013

[3] Source: 2013 Population Estimates


[5] This is a very limited (and imperfect) definition of the differences between preterite and imperfect. For more information, readers should seek resources such as Frantzen (2013) Using literary texts to reveal problematic rules of usage. Foreign Language Annals 46(4) 628-645.


Imperfect means

            incomplete, a bruised
            pear reduced
            in price, a water tank
            that purred for hours
            while 501 verbs surfed
            conjugations, continuous
            waves of what was, what used
            to be, what no longer exists.

Te amaba, me amabas, nos amabamos

           Not a map’s stickpin to
           Brooklyn, more highlighter
           glide across an open workbook’s
           spine, pesos doled out
           per diem like guilt
           from a pishke
           cup, pouring ever-
           present rain.

I was working. I used to be married.

           Describe perfect’s
           a house cramped
           with winter rooms,
           fractured bones
           percolating in
           widowed franchises
           until Spanish classes
           sparked a pretense
          of purpose:

reir [to laugh]; reíamos [we used to laugh],

         She began with habitual
         error, unceasing
         fault: She
         used to correct
         high school
         English—I been,
         you been—until
         she’d been
         burned, bored,
         bordered on sub-par,
         parsing sense.
         Now, she chooses
         To not edit, attends
         to contextual cues:

siempre, con frequencia, a veces, todos los días

        usually the imperfect
        follows, no—
        she says, it always does.


Just flap the tongue against the palate—all
your “r’s” will sound like natives’ do. Advice
you comprehend but send a bowling ball
through “pedo” (fart), instead of the precise

conjunction “pero” (but). “Better, butter,”
repeated exercises to untether
frenum tissue’s stubborn US clutter,
curl up and climb the tip to alveolar

ridge, a childish “embarrassment” that’s worse
as cognates claim “embarazado” –you’re pregnant
with shame, ask for more pages (páginas),
mistake sounds, stress (vaginas), leaving friends silent

or worse, enchanted, perceived as easy, filthy
rich, a gringa. No choice but to plead: guilty.


When I got to Morehouse College in Atlanta, you had to take up to level four in Spanish. And I just said, you know what? I can’t do this. But I had to. I said, listen I’m just gonna figure out some way to survive, cheat my way through. Then these two students had just gotten back from the Dominican Republic and they spoke to my class—two black guys who looked just like me going back in forth between English and Spanish. Something about seeing those two folks being able to do that, and I just said, you know what? I gotta figure this out! This was pre-internet and it was only what you could see in the Encyclopedia Britannica. So I looked up the Dominican. They had a picture of a man in the sugar cane fields with a machete, and I said, “Well, I’m not going there!” When you grow up lower middle class, or “high class poor,” whatever you want to call it, you don’t volunteer for any suffering. So I went to Madrid, a big city where African immigrants are looked down upon. They don’t walk up to black people randomly and say “Hey, where you from?” One day I looked up and it was like: I’m broke, my Spanish is not advancing the way I would’ve thought, I’m hungry. You know, am I gonna spring for this little tortilla española or am I just gonna drink some water for dinner? That’s how I ended up in Mexico. They just walk up to you all the time and have conversations with you. I felt rich! I could eat all the tacos I wanted! I ended up coming back to Oaxaca every summer for 19 years and then I moved here. I first went to the university to see what’s up and I saw this group of guys watching NBA highlight videos. It was like Michael Jordan’s hey day. When I peeked my head in the door everybody was like COME IN COME IN COME IN COME IN!!!!! I love this place. It’s a great place for Black people to be.        


There are service people who speak Spanish but it never occurs to me to speak with them. Is that weird or what? It’s a mindset, you know? I’m afraid that when I meet someone who speaks Spanish that I’ll speak to them and they’ll fire back and I’ll go, uhhhhh, now I really don’t speak Spanish. Or I worry I’ll offend people who’re Latino but were raised in the US and they don’t speak Spanish. And its really embarrassing if I try to speak with them. There are quite a number of Spanish people who live in Minneapolis but it’s a certain area of the city where a lot of people don’t feel comfortable. What I do, for example, is if I make a phone call and they say press 1 for English or “2” for Spanish or hold on or whatever, I hold on. Then I say, “Perdón, estoy practicando mi español, por favor, me puedes ayudar? Porque quiero comprar un boleto [Excuse me, I’m practicing my Spanish, can you help me? Because I want to buy a ticket].” It’s good to speak to a Spanish speaker that way. Then they have lots of patience.


French gets easier. Kiswahili gets easier. I don’t think that way about learning Spanish. It gets more and more challenging. I can manage the tenses, but it’s the massive amount of nouns and adjectives. A lot of words aren’t even in Spanish! Tlaxcala and Quetzalcoatl—those are Aztec words and they’re blended in! English is extremely open and welcoming. You can speak English any kind of way, and nobody’s gonna say anything to you. And, some of what other people bring to English gets adopted, sort of like the Borg in Star Trek. We have words in English that didn’t exist fifty years ago because of cultural, what do you call it? Appropriation? Spanish is not like that. French is not like that at all, and in a few hundred years, I just feel that French is going to be dead! I had one woman tell me, “just think in Spanish.” That makes no sense to me. How do you get up in the morning and start thinking about your day in Spanish when you don’t have the vocabulary? Usually, when I leave [Oaxaca], for the most part, that’s it for Spanish. You know, like the everyday constant interaction: going to the Mercado or to the store, you know going to see a movie or going to a club ordering drinks, for the most part its done when I leave here. I will look at telemundo, I will read. I will do my messages. I will read my inspirationas.   When I’m here, this is where I’m at. When I’m there, thats where I’m at. This slows me down in becoming proficient in Spanish but I can accept that. We are eternal. And who knows, in two years I may decide I want to go to Croatia, or maybe I’ll go to West Africa or Senegal, or Benin, where they speak French.

(1,147 words of poetry)

Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor
309Q Aderhold Hall
Athens, GA 30602