How Learning Spanish Affects Everything About You
In the past few days, Hilaria Baldwin has been lambasted for allegedly manipulating her name, place of birth, and accent to make her seem, I suppose, more exotic. It’s a celebrity “scandal” that, on the face of it, doesn’t seem as egregious or offensive as other, more blatant cases of cultural appropriation from academia in recent memory, including professors (at George Washington University and Eastern Washington University) and a grad student who held (or were offered) prestigious positions and secured research funds while posing as people of color. In response to the controversy surrounding Baldwin, thoughtful and articulate people have spoken out about why feigning a foreign accent is offensive, and their pain should certainly be recognized. That said, in this post, I don’t want to join the mob, so to speak. I know almost nothing about Hilaria Baldwin and I don’t have any desire to judge her actions or speculate further about her intentions. I am, however, interested in the idea that knowledge of a foreign language can affect how we speak our native language and how we are perceived by our compatriots.
For me, one benefit to learning Spanish has been that it has made me think more about how I speak English. Naturally, my English vocabulary has been expanded by learning Spanish. Many Spanish words have English equivalents that are seldom used. For example, sometimes when I teach my students the word “inundación,” which means “flood,” I tell them that this word is a cognate, since “inundation” means the same thing. Curiously, however, I almost never have students who were previously familiar with that word or its variations, “to inundate” and “inundated.” Sometimes when we use certain words, like “inundation,” it makes us sound a bit more foreign. I remember coming home from having studied abroad in Spain for a semester and catching myself using the verb “to obtain,” which we all know but almost never use, since “to get” is shorter and sounds much more informal and natural.
I also tend to take my time now when I speak English in formal settings. In part, I do this because I want my speech, in whatever language I speak, to be as grammatically correct as possible. Growing up in a home in which English was the only language spoken, I was never concerned with how grammatically correct my speech was. I said what I needed to say to communicate what I wanted to communicate. I’ve always been pretty shy and quiet, especially around people I didn’t know well, so I wasn’t interested in expressing feelings. The fewer words I could use, the better. When learning Spanish, however, I eventually wanted to practice speaking and prove my fluency, adding more and more words and tenses. I needed the time to craft sophisticated sentences and connect with native speakers. Later, when I was in grad school, some of the papers I wrote in English would often come back to me with grammatical errors pointed out to me, which also made me want to rethink how I used my native language.
My rate of speech in English is also affected now, I think, because I find myself constantly translating (in my head) everything I say. This is part of what makes me a successful learner of Spanish, and I think a lot of us who are fully bilingual have both languages mingling in our head at the same. In fact, one of the misconceptions about being bilingual is that you can simply flip a switch and interact completely in a language, with the other language turned off. The truth is, we are constantly doing mental gymnastics. Furthermore, we often will do a lot of code switching – using both languages in the same sentences – when communicating with others who are also bilingual. And yes, there are times now when I want to express an idea in English and I can’t remember a word, even a relatively high frequency one. Usually when this happens, it’s during a formal setting, like when I’m teaching a class and I’ve been using a lot of Spanish, and my nerves get the better of me, making me temporarily forget an English word. I can only imagine how I would be perceived if I were in the public eye and had to give live interviews on national television.
I was painfully aware that I was an outsider when I studied abroad because I desperately wanted to fit in. I now know that I probably won’t ever completely fit in when I go to a Spanish-speaking county, and not just because I’m not a native speaker. Even if my Spanish is very good and I have a good grasp of the culture, everything about my appearance – including my skin color, facial features, clothes, posture, how I carry myself, etc. – calls attention to my otherness when I visit my wife’s family in Mexico, for example. I’ve now accepted that and try not to stress too much about it when I travel. I do try, however, to constantly improve my Spanish to compensate for my foreign appearance.
One thing that my wife and daughter always laugh about now is when I go somewhere like a restaurant or supermarket here in the small town in Illinois where we live, and the people I interact with ask me where I’m from. I first noticed this happening when we moved here about 10 years ago. Prior to that, we were living in Los Angeles, where I attended grad school, and almost nobody ever asked where I was from, even though I was so clearly not from there. Of course, Los Angeles is a place with a lot of tourists, and a lot of people who have made it their own are originally from somewhere else. In fact, most of the people I interacted with on a daily basis were from elsewhere, too. Even though I’m originally from Wisconsin, I felt like an outsider when I came back to the Midwest to start my first teaching position after graduating, mostly because I was living in a small town in a rural region for the first time. And nothing made me feel more like an outsider than being asked where I was from after saying just a few words. How did they know? Eventually, I theorized that it was because the locals here have a notably rural, almost Southern accent, that I didn’t have. The cadence and rate of speech were different from mine. The vocabulary was a bit different, too. I remember having to question a waitress about what she meant when she asked me if I was ready for my “ticket,” which I came to understand meant “check” or “bill.” (A ticket, to me, sounds like something a police officer would give me for doing something wrong; no, I most definitely did not want a ticket.) In other words, their English was “different” from mine.
That theory was blown out of the water when I went back to Milwaukee, my home town, and took my dog to a dog park. As I was walking down the paths, another dog owner and I struck up a conversation. At one point, she remarked: “You have a beautiful accent. Where are you from?” I laughed nervously and said: “From here.” It wasn’t the last time that I had such an experience. It still happens from time to time. It used to bother me. A lot. Now I realize that my English has changed over the years. It sounds different. And it happened naturally. I have no desire to sound like I’m from somewhere else. On the contrary, wherever I am, I want to feel like I belong. I want to fit in. At the same time, however, I never misrepresent who I am and where I come from. I tell practically everyone I converse with that I’m a native English speaker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, even if they don’t believe me. My full first name may have an exact Spanish equivalent, but most people just call me “Dan.” And there are few names more gringo sounding than Dan Brown.
People who ask me where I’m from tend just to be curious. They’re not intentionally trying to make me feel like an outsider. If I’m honest, though, on days when I’m more reflective, I realize that I am not completely at home anywhere. I don’t say that to elicit sympathy. As a white American heterosexual male, I know that I am beyond privileged. So many people suffer real discrimination for their perceived otherness, which I will never know, and they don’t have the mobility that I do as a citizen. A lot of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, like my wife, express some variation of the phrase “No soy de aquí, ni de allá,” meaning “I’m neither from here nor there.” This sentiment rings true to me now, too, even if in an a much less intense way.
What I want to underscore is something that should be very obvious, that the way we speak – whether it be our first or second language – is a product of the experiences and teachers we’ve had. My Spanish accent, for example, is a bit difficult to pin down. My wife’s Mexican accent has surely influenced me. I’ve spent a lot of time in Spain, too. I’ve had Spanish teachers and professors from Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Spain, and the United States. I’ve had friends and classmates from Argentina, Chile, Peru, and elsewhere. Their lessons are ever-present in me. Hence, I try to be something of a linguistic chameleon, modifying how I speak depending on who I’m interacting with, but I’m ultimately unsuccessful. No matter where I go in the Spanish-speaking world, my speech never sounds perfectly local. Even if I speak with a blind person, some word I use will ultimately give me away. And something similar happens when I speak in my native English.
To bring this post back to its original departure point, at least some of Hilaria Baldwin’s explanation of her accent seems somewhat plausible to me. Again, I don’t want to get into the details of her situation or whether or not she’s sincere. I just want to emphasize that bicultural and bilingual people are often seen as rarities in the United States, where relatively few native English speakers make the effort to become fully proficient in a second language. (Americans tend to have few if any opportunities before high school to start language classes, and we tend to give up after a few short years.) Learning a second language, in a lot of ways, is like a performance. Some of my students who have a background in theater are among the most proficient learners in class, because they’re not afraid to take chances with the language and make mistakes in front of their peers. And they know how to rehearse! In our classes we often role-play and take on different personalities that can extend beyond the classroom. As I teach, I often feel like an actor, altering my voice and exaggerating emotions in an effort to make my Spanish more comprehensible to the students. Although I don’t do it in my own classes, I know more than a few Spanish teachers who have their students assume a Hispanic name in their classes. I still call Ryan, one of my best friends from high school, Ramón, because our classes together were meaningful and fun experiences. (My Spanish name in high school was Jesús.) Our interactions with the target language and target culture affect us in multiple ways, not the least of which is how we’re perceived by our compatriots. Are polyglots a little crazy? Maybe, although I don’t like to use that word. And I don’t think most of us would be diagnosed with a multiple personality disorder. I prefer to say that we’re imaginative or that we’re eccentric, but whatever adjective we ultimately settle on, I try not to take it as an insult. Maybe we just wired ourselves a bit differently. I can definitively say that learning Spanish has led me to the biggest blessings and most profound realizations in my life. And for this reason I can handle being considered a little strange, but my sincere hope is that other Hispanophiles (or Francophiles or Germanophiles or lovers of any culture for that matter) won’t be mocked for expressing their admiration for cultures and allowing it to influence every aspect of them.
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