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Posts Tagged ‘Social Sciences’

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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I got an interesting comment from CM in response to my post on linguistic prejudice, below:

I think you’ve left out the fact that your native dialect of English is virtually identical with Standard English, so you’re approaching this problem as an outsider. Also, we correct kids behavior all the time based on our fear that others will judge them. I bet you don’t think twice about telling him to stand up straight or stop slouching. What if there were a community of people that identified as slouchers? And they had an army and a flag? Just like there’s nothing inherently special about Standard English, why assume that there’s something inherently special in Spanish-English or Peruvian Spanish?

I think kids his age are a little young to explain the “why” of what’s going on. Maybe you should continue to correct his English and when he becomes a teenager explain why Standard English is no more special than the language he speaks at home. At the end of the day it’s going to be up to him what language he uses at work, just like it’ll be up to him how he combs his hair or what clothes he wears in public (I notice your conscience doesn’t bother you when he wears American clothes in public instead of traditional Andean village attire).

Yes, my native dialect of English is very close to Standard, but there are several changes I make to conform to “professional” English.  I avoid ending sentences with an upward lilt because it sounds uncertain (to men?)  in the workplace.  I avoid using the word “just” or exclamation points in emails or other language that downplays my position as an authority figure.  I don’t use terminology that would identify me as young for a project manager like “sweet.”  I make several conscious changes to my natural variety (young and female) to sound more “professional” (middle-aged and male).

Additionally, my brother-in-law wouldn’t naturally wear Andean garb, but he does naturally speak a variety of Spanish-influenced English.  I’m not going to force him to be more traditionally Peruvian than he is, but there is a sense in which I am standardizing his dialect in opposition to his Peruvian heritage.  I like your point about the community of slouchers.  My background in linguistics makes me sensitive to linguistic hegemony, when in truth we crush children’s eccentricities all the time in an effort to make them more acceptable to society and more likely to succeed.   This seems more benign to me when they are behaviors that are not associated with a cultural identity, but you are correct that a cultural identity is just a set of behaviors backed up by a flag.

It is true that there isn’t much utility in talking about this issue with him now, particularly since he is bored by discussing language and the languages he speaks.  I think the most important thing is for me to refrain from poisoning his brain with ideas like, “People will think he’s poor!”  Hopefully later on we can have the meta discussion about language and the beauty of variety, and in the meantime I can refrain from filling his brain with ideas about language as a marker of socioeconomic position.

At the core of this issue is the notion that I don’t think any variety of language is superior to another and that we should not have to suppress our natural variety to succeed.  Despite believing this to be right and true and knowing that change will not happen until people are willing to speak in different varieties at work, I choose not to do so.  I also choose to standardize my brother-in-law’s dialect.  Apparently I think linguistic tolerance is an excellent idea, but not one that I’m willing to sacrifice for in order to make it a reality.

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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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