Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It's Not What You Say, It's How You Say It...(In English or Spanish)

When I met el esposo, I was living in Spain, trying to perfect my Spanish. I was taking classes at the famed Universidad de Salamanca, situated in a region of Spain known for its absolutely perfect Castillian Spanish. When my Spanish classmates found out I had befriended this guy from the South of Spain they warned me that he would be a bad influence. "Why?" I wondered. And they all responded that they don't speak properly in the south of Spain. They made it sound like southern Spaniards weren't very educated and had a horrible grasp of proper Spanish.

Obviously I didn't pay attention to the warnings because I married my Southern Spanish friend and have allowed him to help me with my Spanish for the last 15 years, but it is an interesting situation. El esposo always bristles when people from the north of Spain (and elsewhere outside of Spain as well) imply that southern Spaniards don't know how to speak proper Spanish. He claims that grammatically, they speak correctly but their accents, and the way they pronounce certain words and the speed at which they talk (really fast) makes them targets for the rest of Spain to mock. Kind of like southerners in the United States.

I mean who doesn't hear a Southern accent and almost automatically some stereotype jumps to mind. Either of Scarlett O' Hara, or the KKK, or at the very least, someone who sits on a porch and sips sweet tea from time to time. Of course these are stereotypes, but I would feel safe to say that many people with strong southern accents in the United States, if they go North for a job or schooling, may feel the need to tone it down in order to be taken seriously. My husband says it is the same here in Spain.

When el esposo went North to go to college, he claims that for the first month the other guys in his dorm, as well as his teachers, just kind of stared at him with confused looks on their faces whenever he opened his mouth. They couldn't understand a word he said. So very quickly he learned to drop his accent and spoke more slowly and got rid of some of the southern slang he'd used all of his life. And he was fine. And of course whenever he comes home he slides right back into his comfortable southern speech. I have asked that when he speaks with our children that he speaks a kind of neutral Spanish as well so they don't have to learn to code switch as they pass in and out of different Spanish speaking situations. And he's okay with that. He loves his language, his southern Spanish language, but he understands the reality our children are living in as well.

So, I'm wondering...The rest of you, do you code switch with your language? Do you speak one way at home and another in public? Is it based on region, culture, comfort? Let's hear it. I'm listening.



Nif said...

After moving from very white Massachusetts to Philadelphia, my first job out of college included answering a domestic violence hotline. I did a lot of careful listening to my native Philly coworkers, especially the black ones, so that I could learn to speak to hotline clients in a cadence that was comforting. I tried to match the way I talked to the way the person on the other end of the phone was talking so that I would be heard as a confidant and not an interfering outsider.

My wife claims that I do some of that same code switching when speaking to some of our black neighbors. I guess I'm trying to sound less white, since I'm sure that how I sound is part of that inadvertent passing I do.

My wife also says that I slip back into my home accent when I'm talking to my mother. That's not a transition I can do consciously, but I remember hearing my father do similar things when talking to his brother back in Tennessee.

JBH said...

OK - a quick post during my lunch break:-)

My ULTIMATE code-switching experience was when I lived in Japan! I lived in Kyoto at first - and their Japanese dialect is really challenging, but very desireable for Japanese women. All of my Japanese colleagues hoped I would pick up on this softer, gentile dialect.

Alas, I hung out with my friends in Osaka - speaking "kansai-ben" - a very harsh, brusk dialect. Not becoming for a young "japanese" woman. Or an international woman either:-).

So when I moved to Tokyo, this Osaka dialect WAS my native Japanese tongue. Much to the horror and amusement of my new Japanese friends there. To avoid constant snickering, I did adjust to the standard Japanese (Tokyo dialect).

But I can still speak Osaka-ben!

ieishah said...

yes, i code my language, if that's what we're calling the schizophrenic 'standard english', 'ebonic', 'caribbean patois', spanish, french linguistic limbo i live in... but i wanted to comment of the southern spain thing.

my two best friends in spain are two stunning, globetrotting chicks from las canarias, that group of islands that are as southern as you can possibly get in spain. most spaniards think they are venezuelan. because of the way they speak, their citizenship is always up for debate. so much so, that one of them, sandra, who lives in barcelona, is told by her colleagues, you know, in the spirit of jokes and humor, that she's not spanish, but african.

the language thing in spain is serious. sandra is clearly a white spanish girl. but when she opens her mouth, she's 'almost african'.

for me, since i first learned spanish in costa rica (on a year abroad like you), i've kept my central american accent. i keep my c's and z's clean, and generally don't give in to the tyranny. but then, i'm american. i can do that.

LT said...


So interesting.


So, this happens all over the world.


You crack me up. Keep that Spanish clean!

Anonymous said...

Funny you should mention this: I recently met a guy from my (African) country. Because we were colonized by the Brits, I'm used to hearing a more clipped accent from my fellow countrymen, not exactly British, but certainly a patois which has very sharp consonants mixed with a trace of tribal accent that makes it easy to pinpoint the region of the country that a person is from.

So I don't know why I'm so disturbed by this guy's very pronounced, super-drawly, excessively nasal american accent. If I didn't know better and was speaking to him on the phone, I might confuse him for a white guy from Teaneck, NJ or Buffalo, NY. His accent-shift actually bothers me to no end and I actually find it super-repellent. My brain just shuts down and doesn't want to listen to a word he says because it always rings false. And I know it's his way of seeming less "FOBish" and fitting better into life in America (he's only been here 3 years), but it's a cadence that is so "off" for a new immigrant.

What makes things worse is his progressive loss of the american accent as he gets into a more heated discussion - I actually feel relief when he forgets himself and mistakenly switches into a more familiar way of speaking that sounds like other countrymen of mine - it's like, "oh, you're in there, somewhere". And I know it probably seems shallow, but it's actually a big part of why I don't consider him a dating prospect, despite his other better qualities. Weird?

The funny thing is that I was reading the recent short story collection by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (have you read her? She's AWESOME!), and she touches on this in one story, and that's what's given me the courage to even explore my disdain for this guy.