I was raised by my grandparents, who are Latin American immigrants. My grandmother emigrated from El Salvador and my grandfather from Cuba. They experienced linguistic discrimination living in the states in the early sixties and seventies, specifically targeted for their pronunciation. As such, they were hesitant to speak the language around their children.
My mother, being their first child, was the most secure in her ability to communicate using Spanish. As generations past there was a language shift from Spanish to English. I have never held a conversation with my grandparents in only Spanish. Instead, it is always a mix between the two languages, “Spanglish.” I learned my Spanish in a classroom setting and have been studying the language for the past twelve years. When speaking to certain groups of people I switch between both English and Spanish, that is not to say I don’t have confidence in my ability to understand or communicate in Spanish necessarily. Living in North Central Florida I actively conversed with the Latinx community in mostly Spanish. I felt a sense of solidarity with my Latinx peers that were in similar situations as me, learning Spanish outside of their home. Yet, visiting family in Miami or El Salvador made me feel insecure in my ability to use my language. Spanish is not my native tongue which contributes to my insecurity. I did not have the same status as the rest of my family, even though I speak Spanish fluently. Furthermore, the minimal Spanish I did hear, from my grandfather, was a dialect of the Caribbean variations of Spanish, which meant I was exposed to a form of Spanish that is typically viewed as ungrammatical or incorrect. Those that speak this variation of Spanish are profiled as uneducated.
The Caribbean variations of Spanish are difficult to understand as they have weaker pronunciations and are known for shortened words. For instance, if I were to use the word estas in the context of asking how someone is doing I would drop the last morpheme -s. It would be pronounced /’esta/ not /ˈestas/. This linguistic environment helped me develop a lexicon with words, such as pa for para, “for,” and mercao for mercado, “store.” Linguistic profiling of my speech would change depending on who I speak to and what words I use. If I were to speak with other Cubans I could be perceived as uneducated, while if I were to speak with the Argentinian community at my school I would be perceived as educated using the standardized Spanish I learned in school. My interviewee, an international student from Saudi Arabia, has experienced similar linguistic prejudices speaking a second language. For our purposes we will refer to them as Julie. They were only exposed to Arabic in their household. Their pursuit in learning English is motivated by their family and societal pressures. More specifically, when they saw their cousins speaking English, something that is perceived as “high status or intelligence” in their culture, they were more inclined to study the language. At this moment they felt pressure from their family to “fit in.” On another note, outside of their family communicating in English proved difficult. When they were younger and their English was not fluent, they found themselves in socially daunting situations. They were insecure with the level of proficiency they had, yet were obligated to translate for their parents whenever the situation demanded itself. The study of a second language, suddenly, became a stressor. They found, however, conversing with native speakers helped improve their English. For example, Julie mentioned traveling to Dubai. Being exposed to proficient speakers of English and having to help their parents communicate pushed them to “embrace the language as a tool, not a handicap.”
They came to the United States in pursuit of education here at Emory University. Their ability to speak “English means education, literally.” They use English as the only form of communication to learn. The language is, as mentioned above, a tool in obtaining their education here at Emory. They do not feel disadvantaged any longer, having learned from extensive experience with native English speakers. Nonetheless, losing their native tongue is a disconcerting thought. They never learned formal Arabic in their household, and as such have been employing English for almost any form of communication since coming to the states.
This experience has taught me that language plays an important role in a person’s life. It affects one’s ability to communicate and their status within their community. Our experiences with bilingualism have helped and hindered us. For instance, we are exposed to new cultures and have new understandings of places other than our native country, something that Julie found important when recounting their experience with language. Yet, we were exposed to prescriptive attitudes on our second languages and linguistic discrimination for our pronunciations. To further conclude, language is important for communication, but it offers more than a means of getting ideas across. It offered me a new community to belong to and it offered Julie a platform on which to relate to their family.