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Posts Tagged ‘Spanish 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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I think the title of this post is somewhat ironic, because the majority of nations throughout the world are multilingual, and the US’s predominant monolingualism and angst over establishing English as the official language is truly a peculiarity of our country.  I don’t think parents in Africa are saying to themselves, how do I encourage my child to be bilingual?  Most people around the world grow up bi- or multilingual by default, but even parents raising children in a multilingual country can worry that their child will learn and retain a minority language that is not common in their country.  By “minority language,” I mean the language not commonly spoken in the country or taught in school.  So for instance, in my marriage English would be the majority language because I live in the US, and Spanish (my husband’s native language) would be the minority language because it is not taught to young school children or spoken in most situations.

My background is in sociolinguistics, so I had actually done some reading and studying on this topic before even becoming pregnant, but it’s obviously gained a new saliency for me.  I’ve started collecting books on this topic again, mostly because while I had learned about child language acquisition and bilingualism in grad school, no one had ever taught me about biliteracy.  I realized I had no idea how to raise a child that is not only verbally proficient but also able to read and write in another language.

Currently, it’s become trendy to support the “one parent one language” model, in which each parent speaks exclusively in one of the two languages you are trying to teach your child.  It’s thought it will make it easier for children to learn to separate the languages.  However, this method shows less success if the parent who works the most (often the father) is the speaker of the minority language and thus not available as often to provide as much input in that language. (That would be our family situation.)

It’s common for researchers to suggest that you have a regular “system” set up for when you speak the language with rules, such that perhaps you always speak the minority language at home but switch to the majority language in public, or perhaps even in public you always use the minority language.  Maybe the parents use the majority language with each other, one parents use the minority language with the child, and the other parent uses the majority language with the child.  Their emphasis is on these interactions being rule-governed.

I tend to think this theory is crap.  My husband and I don’t have a rigid system for what language we speak with each other.  We both speak both English and Spanish very fluently, and while there are certain situations when we tend to use one language rather than another, the majority of our conversations are characterized by code-switching (switching back and forth between languages within the same conversation, or even the same sentence).

I definitely want my husband to speak in Spanish to our daughter (and he plans to) so we can maximize the amount of native speaker input that she has in the minority language.  However, I don’t think it will hurt our daughter if I speak to her in a combination of English and Spanish, or if her dad uses English sometimes when he talks to her.  Children who grow up in multilingual countries sort those languages out into distinct languages that are appropriate to use in certain contexts, and I believe that she will be able to do the same.  After all, she will interact with her monolingual grandparents on both sides.  She will probably go to day-care with my mother-in-law, where Spanish will be the appropriate language, and to preschool, where English will be the appropriate language.  These will be opportunities for her to learn how to speak in only one language with certain people, and I don’t think we need to start enforcing that at home before she’s even in school.

My greatest worry is not that she will be confused, but that some day she will decide that because her friends don’t speak Spanish, she doesn’t want to either.

 

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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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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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