In short what I really want to say is: “Dear Becky, HL and Code switching isn’t about you. That’s cool your great-great-great grandmother was Dutch and you studied in Guatemala for a semester, but you are neither a HL learner nor are you code switching. Instead Becky, take a seat and think about how you are perpetuating white supremacy.” —
I am getting my doctorate in Spanish linguistics / Latinx cultural studies. It is strange to study with people who grew-up in the midwest, studied abroad and decided “Oh the Spanish language is so beautiful, the people are so nice, I want to study it.” That isn’t how it works for me.
My Spanish comes from colonialism. My Spanish is seen as inferior and discouraged in public spaces. My English is viewed as inferior because of the influence of my Spanish. My Spanish made me a “high risk” student. My Spanish is now mocked as inferior to the variety spoken in Spain. My Spanish is resilience, and despite being discouraged from using it in this country, the fact I have maintained any of it should be applauded for my resistance–yet white people get applauded for learning it. It frustrates me when my classmates and instructors don’t understand their privilege and their own white supremacy–but why would they ever stop to understand it?
For example, we were discussing Heritage Language (HL) learners, a term often used to describe those who speak a language that is the non-dominant language of the culture within which they live. I dislike the term “heritage” because it connotes something archaic when really for example Spanish speakers in the US are vibrant and dynamic. How can we call something a “heritage language” when there are more Spanish speakers in the US than there are in Spain or Colombia or Venezuela?
Anyway, when looking at the broad definition of “heritage language learners” which includes anyone with any ethnic ties to a language, my classmates started listing off Western European countries of which they too like me were HL learners because they were 5th generation Dutch for example. This was frustrating as it minimized the racialization that happens with language, no one expects you to actually speak Dutch but people feel very comfortable asking a 5th generation Chinese-American “Why don’t you speak Chinese?” or asking a Chicano “Why did you get a B in Spanish?” there is a racialized expectation of language that white people don’t face.
This lack of understanding in a how the term is used to describe resilience isn’t just found when white people choose to describe themselves in the broadest definition of a HL but also with the term code-switching. When for example, a white person, who studied in Spain for six months, describes their speaking in class as “code-switching”, it is a complete lack of understanding of who actually uses code switching. Having two items, two sets of ideas, two languages, two of anything and going back and forth doesn’t mean you are code switching and it is insulting to those that use code switching as a racilaized form of survival.
From the article Future Educators’ Perceptions of African American Vernacular English (AAVE):
“In spite of such research, the language that African American children speak in the classroom is devalued in the school setting because of its lack of conformity with the teachers’ language and language expectations.”
If a child is devalued for their language which is associated with their race, and then chooses to use the more prestigious variety of English (that spoken by white people) their resilience in finding a way to implement code switching to maneuver language as survival should not be minimized by white academic elitists who want to pretend they are code switching too. The same goes for the use of Spanish and English—combining the two or using a word in English while you speak in Spanish does not mean you are code switching. Code Switching has structure and necessity. Code switching springs to life as a beautiful form of resilience and everytime someone misuses the term in failing to recognize the power of the language tool that has been developed by disenfranchisment, they minimize the people and the necessity from which code switching evolved.
TL DR. Dear Becky, take a seat.
“If one looks at the bilingual speaker holistically…Phenomena such as interference, mixing and switching become the subject of analysis, helping us to discover patterns and relationships with other features of speech. A non-native accent and the choice of a wrong word (perhaps a loan translation from the other language) are more likely to be detected in bilinguals…” (Hoffman 1991)
I disagree with the above quote. It isn’t an interference, or a lack of transfer (both pejorative and prescriptivist terms), it is that we bilinguals have more tools in our tool box. We have more language to pull from and as such our language is more dynamic. I sometimes purposefully and sometimes unconsciously move syntax, use vocabulary that “doesn’t belong” for a monolingual speaker—but to me does. I express myself as best I can, and feel my language, the ethos of my language, which cannot be taught. Who gets to decide what is native and that it is my ideal is to be a “native”—what does that even mean? My language isn’t a set standard nor do I desire it to be.
I have been very frustrated and impatient the last few months as the man I am dating learns Spanish. I use Spanish as my language of love and affection, while I use English as a bureaucratic tool to maneuver a white society (not that Spanish isn’t also imperialistic–it just manifests differently in my daily life). As such when my gentleman speaks to me in Spanish, a language he is learning as an adult I swoon, but I know he doesn’t feel what he is saying. As in he is in such an early stage of language development that he doesn’t feel the spirit of the language yet. He says things in Spanish, I am almost certain he would never say in English, they are sweet things but he doesn’t understand the impact his words have on me. The translation is not one-to-one because the literal definition does not include emotional interpretation.
I imagine him reaching a high level of fluency before he gains the ideology, the mentality of the language. I imagine it happening in the marketplace somewhere in Spanish speaking Mesoamerica, him realizing that he has been speaking without understanding the emotion and realizing that his language abilities are not what he believes. That he will come home and tell me the story of how he realized he hadn’t felt a word, felt the emotion of the word, until the context thrusted itself on him. It is at this moment of language insecurity where his capabilities will actually be at their highest. The bilingual speaker is always in that flux of wondering “how can I use all my tools to fully express myself with all the accurate emotion that is available at my disposal”.
The moment he realizes, that he hasn’t mastered the ethos yet and wonders if he is ever capable of it (as I wonder it myself daily and try to manipulate language to communicate and connect) is when I will trust what he says even more fully.
Richard and Elenamary
My good friend Richard, an Australian national phoned me and asked if I would meet him at the North Gate entrance of our university to accompany him to get his haircut. His argument was that my Chinese was better than his and that I could stop them if they started to do something horrendous. My Chinese albeit at this point slightly better than Richard’s (his is now better) was also awful–but I’ve never been timid about trying. I met-up with Richard and shortly after received a phone call from our friend Dee a Thai national.
Dee and I lived in the same building and he was feeling ill, could I please bring him back some anti-diarrhea medicine– no problem I was on it. At this point we were finishing with Richard’s haircut when in walked Adlet our Kazakh friend. Adlet asked what we are up to and laughed at the dubiousness of Richard relying on my Chinese to get his haircut. I argued, “Well look at him, his hair is cut isn’t it? He looks good so my Chinese worked well enough.” Adlet still laughing questioned me inquiring “how are you going to get the medicine?” That I figured was more manageable then a hair cut. “I don’t know the word for diarrhea but I do know the words for poop and explosion. I will use those words and then see what happens.”
Adlet and Elenamary
Adlet always down to tease me, decided to join us and watch me attempt to purchase the medicine. I used my limited vocabulary and when I used the word explosion pointed at my own butt. It worked! I was quite pleased with myself and Adlet enjoyed watching me act out “poop explosion”.
I have been thinking a lot about that day, as I have spent the last few days in Singapore. I never spoke mandarin well but I am realizing that I did know way more than I gave myself credit for. I have had a few, let’s call them conversations (barely conversations) the last few days that have ranged in topic from directions, ordering food, to finding an unoccupied bathroom. I didn’t know I still had that vocabulary. It has been good for the ego. Interestingly, I feel more understood here in Singapore, in that I haven’t had to repeat a word trying to find the correct tone, as I did when in Hainan. I am not sure why I am understood more readily here and need to think about it more.
I am so humbled and excited that I got invited to be a part of conversation with two men I admire very much. They are intellectuals, activists, pensive with an acumen that I aspire to have. I hope you enjoy listening to this with half of the enjoyment I had being a part of the conversation. Activism Within the Academy
There is a phrase in German, I absolutely love, “Ich habe die Qual der Wahl” it would somewhat equate to “I am being tortured by the choices I have”.
I am very thankful that I have two great opportunities one professionally and one personally but Ich habe die Qual der Wahl. I am unsure which to choose, and I must choose as they are happening on the same date. I have the opportunity to travel to South Carolina and compete in triathlon at the USAT Collegiate Nationals with the OSU team, which I have never done before and may never have the opportunity to do so again. I also have the opportunity to create a summer program for Latino high school students on heritage language development in the medical fields that will give these students access to college credit and exposure to a university campus, and as part of this program am being invited by my department, expenses paid, to the “Midwest Heritage Language Summit: Fostering the Languages of Your Community” conference in Michigan.
Both the triathlon and conference are on Saturday, April 23rd—Ich habe die Qual der Wahl. Yesterday, after talking to my friend I had decided I didn’t want to die having missed out on the opportunity to go to nationals but I am totally okay dying and not having made it to another academic conference. Then today, after talking to my academic mentor I felt I should go to the conference. The conference will have direct impact on the work I want to do not just in the next 3 months but the next ten years.
I am trying very hard to be thankful that I have both professional and personal opportunities but this decision is torture.
I have an ability to speak a posh standardized form of English when desired but not so much in Spanish. I have more formal education in English, my Spanish while my first language is very informal, and rather unsophisticated in some circles. My lack of poshness in Spanish or as we’d say ‘fresita’ has been noted while Felipe has visited the last few days. Felipe a Colombian friend and I were once skyping and a Mexican friend (who had unlike me attended wealthy prep schools in Mexico) overheard our conversation and when it ended noted that Felipe spoke “muy culto, muy fino” (very cultured, very refined) and then asked how it was he tolerated my country-bumpkin way of speaking. He wasn’t the last to make note of it and I do in fact speak like someone from the rural mountains of Mexico, or the non-standard/élite form of speaking. It is odd how self-conscious I have been about the “poshness” of my Spanish, the last few days. Felipe hasn’t made me feel this way, in fact he has complimented my way of speaking but I know that unlike with English, it is much more difficult for me to have levels of sophistication (for a lack of a better adjective) in Spanish.