Southern Californians Learn the Spanish-English Two-Step

Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2009

If you’re a native English speaker in Southern California, you may feel bombarded with Spanish every day. You see it all around you, on billboards and bumper stickers, and hear it on the radio and in restaurants.

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But rest assured, all you native speakers of English. As confused as you may sometimes be in this crazy, polyglot metropolis, your average native speaker of Spanish is confused a lot more.

This truth hit me during a visit last week to the East Los Angeles Civic Center, which is arguably the epicenter of Spanish-speaking Southern California.

Much of the signage at the Civic Center’s park and lake is in only one language. If you don’t read English, you won’t know there’s a three-hour limit in the parking lot, for instance, or that the park closes at sunset.

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A language is a big and complicated thing. Learning a second one is a lifelong journey that never quite seems complete. Dominguez [Elias Dominguez, a 73-year-old immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico] told me he arrived from Mexico in 1959, has been to night school to study English several times, and reads the newspaper and watches news broadcasts in English.

He’s also raised seven kids in the United States who’ve earned graduate degrees from American universities. But when I asked him in Spanish, “When did you begin to master English,” he answered frankly: “No lo he dominado.” (“I haven’t mastered it.”)

When his kids were growing up, he spoke Spanish to them so they would be bilingual. Spanish was the dominant language at his work too, and it remains the tongue that will always feel more comfortable to him.

“All of our lives we were surrounded by the language of Shakespeare, but we also worked in factories with lots of Latino people,” he said.

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In the end, English remains the dominant tongue of Southern California. “In the long run, Spanish is really the threatened language here,” says Carmen Fought, a linguistics professor at Pitzer College.

The effect of Spanish speakers on the Southern California linguistic universe is heard mostly in new words and phrases constantly being added to the local English lexicon–like “no mas” and “carne asada.”

In this sense, Spanish is merely adding a little flavor to American English, as German, Yiddish and other languages have before it. “Deja vu and reservoir come from French, but we don’t think of those words as hurting our language,” Fought says.

Latin American immigration’s biggest impact on English is in the spread of the use of an English dialect known as “Chicano English” that’s spoken by millions of Latinos across the United States.

Fought has spent years studying Chicano English and its distinctive rhythms and melodies. Most people in Southern California either speak Chicano English or know someone who does.

In Chicano English, words like “embarrassing” end with a long, “tense e” and a dropped g, as in the word “sheen.” The word “fool” can be a synonym for “guy.”

Still, the underlying structure of California English has not changed, Fought said. As long as people value and speak a language, it will endure, she said. And nearly every Latino immigrant resident of California understands that English is the language of achievement.

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So think of Southern California as a ballroom where English and Spanish are two dancers with their arms wrapped around each other’s waists. The Spanish dancer has a lot of flair, and she’s trying to do a tango. But it’s the English dancer who has the lead, and in the end, you realize what they’re doing is a square dance.

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