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Posts Tagged ‘English language’

Since writing my post on the “rules” that some families use to decide which language to speak to their child, I’ve been thinking more about how my husband and I switch back and forth between Spanish and English.   It’s not a process that I’m normally consciously aware of, but after reflecting on it, I think we do have “norms”:

(1) When we are speaking casually, we seem to use whichever word comes to mind first.  Thus, it would be typical for me to say to him, “Me puedes pasar un napkin por fa?” [Could you hand me a napkin please?]  If I paused and thought, I would know to ask for “una servieta” instead of “un napkin,” but I usually just say whatever word comes out first.  It makes it very relaxing to talk to him.  When I am at work and I speak to Spanish-speaking respondents, I have to focus on staying “in” Spanish all the time.  Or when I speak to my parents, I can’t use a convenient expression in Spanish that would better express what I mean.  However, when I’m with him, or one of my few other bilingual friends, I can speak in a much more stream of consciousness manner that is dictated by the words on the tip of my tongue.

(2) When we speak casually, we might deliberately choose to use a word in the opposite language that better expresses what we mean.  For instance, the word “upset” in English is a bit more ambiguous than the possible translations for it in Spanish.  In Spanish, you have to commit more to whether you mean upset-angry, or upset-sad, or upset-agitated, without being able to leave it open to interpretation what kind of upset you are.

(3) When arguing, we each tend to use the language of the other.  I just noticed this last night.  In the midst of an argument, I realized that I was speaking in careful Spanish and my husband was speaking in careful English.  I think this is because we are more consciously invested in making sure the other person is hearing and understanding what we are saying.  However, when I reach a certain level of frustration in an argument, I’ve noticed that I switch into English.  In fact, I use a level of vocabulary that I’m often sure my husband isn’t familiar with, and I don’t care.  So you can actually gauge how upset I am by whether I’m arguing in Spanish or in English.

(4) When we are engaged in normal conversation, we will switch languages if the other person doesn’t understand us.  I might say something to my husband in Spanish and he will say, “huh?”  So when I repeat the sentence, I will say it in English.  It’s interesting to me that we switch repetitions of a sentence to the opposite language, even if the opposite language is not the native language of the person listening.  We have a running joke that being in a bilingual marriage means not understanding 20% of what the other person is saying.  That’s probably an exaggeration, but there’s a kernel of truth to that.  I would guess that we have a lot more “Huh?” interactions than most married couples.

(5) When watching TV or movies, we watch the show in the language it was recorded in.  This is mostly because I’m annoyed by dubbing.  I think the only exception to this is the Discovery Channel, which my husband loves to watch in Spanish and which I tolerate.

(6) When in public, we speak the language that the people around us speak, unless we are deliberately trying to say something private (usually because we are arguing about something).  That probably makes it obvious to people that we are arguing, but at least they don’t have to listen to the gory details.

(7) When I talk on the phone to him, I usually use Spanish or Spanglish, even if I’m around English speakers. So I guess my rule of sticking to the language that people around me speak in front of them really only applies if my husband is also present.

My husband and I have been together for 7 years and married for 3 and a half, so it seems unreasonable and artificial to me that with the birth of our first child, we would suddenly switch to a more ordered system in which we speak only English or Spanish to each other, I speak English to her and he speaks Spanish to her.  I think it will be very interesting to observe what “norms” we each adopt when speaking to her.

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Today I want to talk about linguistic prejudice.  Many people in America live in bidialectcal households and have mastered speaking more than one dialect of English.  Most often, these people speak a more “standard”* English variety along with a “non-standard” home variety like Southern English, African American Vernacular English, New Yorker English, English that’s influenced by another language like Spanish or Chinese, or even that lilting intonation that we associate with teenage girls from Southern California.   Many successful people in America suppress accents or speaking styles that are considered “non-standard” in order to be taken seriously in the work place.  However, should the fact that this linguistic prejudice exists mean that people with non-standard dialects should change how they express themselves in order to get ahead?

My background in sociolinguistics makes me inclined to support the ideal that people should be able to speak in “non-standard” varieties without appearing less competent.  This belief is normally evident in my interactions with my husband’s little brother, who is now seven.  He comes from a monolingual Spanish-speaking household but acquired English in pre-school.  I am trying to inculcate in him pride for his native language and for the variety of English that is spoken by the bilingual members of his Peruvian-American community.

While I strive to support him as a bilingual speaker of English and Spanish, the truth is that I struggle with my own fears for him about his bilingualism and how others will perceive him.  I think I’ve done a good job of hiding from him how much it disappoints me that he’s so reluctant to speak Spanish anymore.  I know the phenomenon of language loss is very common in second generation immigrant communities.  I try to only encourage him rather than being one more voice in his life telling him that he’s speaking Spanish incorrectly or speaking English too much.  I say “try” because I know of at least one occasion when I did not succeed in shielding him from the linguistic prejudices that I carry within me.

When he was four years old I was in the car with him driving him home from Chucky Cheese and he said, “There wasn’t nobody there.”  My reaction was immediate and vehement:  “Don’t ever say that.  You meant to say that there wasn’t anybody there.”  My husband was startled because double negatives are very normal in Spanish and typify the speech of many native-Spanish speakers of English who speak a dialect of English that is influenced by Spanish.  When he asked me what was wrong, I explained without thinking, “People will think he is poor.”

In fact, people will think he is uneducated, but that is often conflated with poverty.  I was afraid for him and trying to protect him from the prejudices that I thought could hold him back in life.  What I should have said was, “No variety of English is inherently better or worse than another.”  I could have said, “You can speak that way at home or with your friends, but in school we always say….”  I missed that opportunity to talk to him about Standard English without making him feel shame for his home variety.

However, the linguist in me bristles in the notion that I would even tell him that the way we speak in school is different than the way we speak at home because it smacks of being  “complicit” in the oppression of linguistic varieties.  When I deliberately or unconsciously try to sound “standard” instead of speaking in a non-standard vernacular like Southern English (or African American Vernacular English, or California Girl English, or New York English, etc.) I perpetuate the myth that you can’t sound Southern and intelligent at the same time.  When I tell a child, “Don’t ever say that again.  People will think you’re poor,” I may be trying to protect him, but I am also telling him that the world at large has the right to judge his variety of English as inferior.

I can’t reconcile the fact that it is morally wrong to be complicit in linguistic prejudice with the role that I have been given in this child’s life to prepare him for life in a world in which people can discriminate against him with impunity because they don’t like the way he sounds.  Do you think we should teach children to be bidialectal to succeed in the work place, or do you think linguistic tolerance will not win the day until people are willing to use their variety in all situations?

*Please note that there is no such thing as “Standard English.”  America is not like Spain with the Royal Academy of the English Language arbitrating what makes up “proper English.”  When I trefer to “Standard English” I’m thinking of the variety that news anchors use on TV, or that I am careful to use in the office when I speak with clients.  This is clearly a subjective term.

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Dear FierceLinguist,

Why do you make fun of prescriptivists who write into your blog when you are a prescriptivist yourself?

Sincerely,

Someone who knows you IRL and knows you lecture people about grammar all the time
Dear Someone,

Let’s unpack these terms.  (Isn’t discussion always more warm and welcoming when it starts with “let’s” like we’re going to do something together?  Let’s do the dishes.  Now you get started.  I’ll catch up.)  A “prescriptivist” describes language the way it “should” be and by nature judges the current usage of language according to some standard.  A “descriptivist” merely observes how language really is and makes no value judgments about language variation.  Variation and change are considered natural and beautiful and not to be feared under the descriptivist paradigm, while prescriptivists are archaic and stodgy *boo hiss*.

These are very nice ideas, and I agree in principal that the most scientific approach to studying language is to be a descriptivist.  However, I went to school for a long time to be able to more effectively mock people who disagree with me for being prescriptivists, while still enforcing grammar rules that I find relevant with the kind of pedantic zeal that comes from having a very expensive framed diploma that I’m still trying to pay off.  And that is my right.  So even if you are my brother, I will still use my lofty position as a trained linguist to tell you that it’s stupid to worry about ending a sentence in a preposition.  And that you’re using the word “peruse” wrong.  I don’t care if it’s the wave of the future.

Sincerely,

A prescriptivist in sheep’s clothing

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Dear FierceLinguist,

Why do you feel so free to end sentences with prepositions?  Don’t you fear reprisal?

Sincerely,

A Prescriptivist

Dear Prescriptivist,

I’m so glad you asked.  The first book about English grammar was written in Latin, because of course that makes a tremendous amount of sense.  In Latin, you can’t end a sentence with a preposition.  Early grammarians based their rules for English grammar on Latin.  That was stupid, and modern linguists don’t hold with that nonsense.  Also, modern English speakers are mostly unaware of that nonsense.

Sincerely,

FierceLinguist

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