Biding Their Tongues

Stuart Silverstein, Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2007

Cuban-born Maria Carreira, the coauthor of two college Spanish textbooks, can glide easily between her native tongue and English. But in her daily life in Southern California, picking which language to speak can be very complicado.

Such as the time when she was at a taco stand where everyone seemed to be ordering and chatting in Spanish. Carreira started placing her order en español, but she quickly switched to English after she got a look at the young employee behind the counter.

“He had the bluest eyes,” Carreira said.

Carreira, a linguist who teaches at Cal State Long Beach and an expert in the use of Spanish in the United States, acknowledges that she blundered at the taco joint. Though the counterman responded in English, it dawned on her that he had been capably handling orders in Spanish.

Yet her flub reflects a tricky language-etiquette question confronted daily by the nation’s growing ranks of English-Spanish bilinguals: When to use inglés and when to speak Spanish?

Not everyone is charmed by the budding bilingualism. Some Americans resent the widespread use of Spanish, particularly at government agencies and public schools. “Our government has gone way too far in encouraging people not to learn English,” said Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of Springfield, Va.-based English First, an advocacy group that is working to make English the nation’s official language.

Boulet and other critics also complain that Spanish sometimes is used to exclude, or gossip about, people who speak only English.

Still, among the estimated 18 million Americans proficient in both languages, according to the U.S. Census in September, the issue isn’t whether to speak English or Spanish, but when. There’s the delicate matter of courtesy—and avoiding bruised feelings. Occasionally, Carreira said, “it’s a land mine.”

For example, switching to Spanish might seem rude if it suggests the other speaker is inept in English. Yet among Latinos proud of their ethnic heritage, completely avoiding Spanish can come across as standoffish.

Experts such as Carreira say the language decision among bilinguals is often made in a split second, based on cues such as age, clothing and apparent social status—along with skin, eye and hair color. Location also can be important: Is the venue East Los Angeles or West L.A.?

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Among Latinos, trying a little Spanish also can defuse hostility. Ana Celia Zentella, a UC San Diego ethnic studies professor and author of the 1997 book “Growing Up Bilingual,” said she has found in her research that older U.S. Latinos often “think they’re being lied to” when they encounter young Latinos who say they don’t know the language.

English-speakers struggling to use a few words of Spanish can, in some circumstances, come across very well. “There are people who are very touched when there is a genuine approach to them by people who are trying to speak Spanish to communicate and to connect with them,” Zentella said. But all too often, she said, English-speakers offend with fractured “mock Spanish” that she considers racist—including “no problemo” and “comprendee?”

Being too eager with Spanish brings another kind of hazard.

Brian Ghiglia, a mediator based in the San Fernando Valley, has become a competent Spanish-speaker by studying on and off since high school. “I speak Spanish when I can because I love to do it and I love to practice,” he said.

When he was in his 20s and in a celebratory mood after a UCLA football game, Ghiglia—who’s now 57—stopped at a gas station and started speaking Spanish “a mile a minute” to a man he assumed was Latino.

“He just sort of looked at me like I was a little crazy, because he didn’t speak a word of Spanish and very little English,” Ghiglia said.

In the increasingly diverse mix that is Southern California, appearances can deceive. Dalton Waters, a security guard who grew up in Nicaragua speaking both languages, is accustomed to startling people with his Spanish. In his case, it’s because he’s black.

That may not be unusual in Miami or New York, where black Spanish-speakers with roots in Cuba, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic are common, but it still surprises in L.A.

When someone struggles to ask Waters a question in English and he replies in Spanish, “a lot of times, they jump back,” he said with a husky laugh.

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