does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cultural Identity – Speaking "Bilingual"

The language purists among you may not want to read further as you might be scandalized. I am proposing that for those of us who are bilingual, speaking in both languages within the same conversation is not only acceptable but also may be the most optimal way to communicate.

On the phone with my cousin the other day, we found ourselves speaking at different times in Spanish; at other times, in English. We would complete two or three sentences in one language and then follow with two or three in the other. Only after shifting to the other language would I suddenly become aware of the shift. The transition had been that seamless and unconscious.

It was a fun conversation. It was as if my cousin and I shared a private code which freed us to be natural with each other. We didn’t have to confine ourselves to a given language box. Indeed, one of the reasons speaking that way is so rewarding is that it is the only time I can reflect fully in my speech my specific life story. I came to the US from Puerto Rico at a very young age, after which I spoke only Spanish at home and in church, while at school I only spoke English. The two tracks remained essentially parallel, and to a large extent, except in conversations like the one with my cousin, they remain so today.

I am not proposing that we stop honoring the syntax of each language when in a monolingual setting. I believe in mastering the grammar and vocabulary of each language, and it is only polite to be place appropriate. Though I am sometimes guilty of this, I also try to avoid a language shift within the same sentence. However, when two people fluent in the same languages are conversing, why not take advantage of the greater supply of vocabulary and grammatical structures available?

Literature will inevitably reflect this. One of the things I found appealing about the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz was his seamless incorporation of different languages and styles of speech: colloquial versus learned diction, English versus Spanish, science fiction/comic book language versus regular English. Díaz seemed to recognize that language can no longer be defined by the classroom. It is a lived language. In our increasingly culturally fungible world, this will likely result in more variety and freedom in our modes of expression. At least I hope so.


Judy Croome said...

Living in a country with eleven (yes, eleven) official languages
makes mixed language conversations the norm. Our national anthem is a fine example of seamless transitions between different languages. I sometimes wonder why, in today's rich multicultural world, it isn't more the norm in literature.

Sun Singer said...

Mix and match. Well, why not!


A Cuban In London said...

I used to frown at Spanglish. SO, yes, I am guilty as charged. But in recent years and after being exposed to the Asian Diaspora (cautionary note, 'Asian' means people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka here in the UK) I've become more relaxed. I agree with you that we should always endeavour to master the grammar and syntax of each language. Otherwise you tend to sink into a solipsistic mismatch of unrecognised sentences and phrases.

Many thanks for another great post.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Malcolm, Judy, and Cuban, we all arrive at this from vastly different backgrounds and yet we do a more than fair job of understanding each other. And that's the beauty of living in these times. Without the flexibility language enjoys, it would practically be a miracle that anyone on this planet could understand anyone else. But often we do. Language is the facilitator, and it evolves to make that possible.

Chennifer said...

I'm the most comfortable when I can mix my three languages (Spanish, Swedish and English). Studies show that people who mix their languages have a great sensitivity to the words and their meanings, choosing when to use what language. I can easily mix the 3 languages in one sentences, although I try not to - so does my dad - and I'm happy that mi novio does it too! I still haven't read Diaz - been nusy studying but will do it as soon as I can.

Judith - another great post! After my trip to DR I haven't blogged or read blogs for a while, but now I'm back, and happy to catch up with you!

Nevine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nevine said...

I am guilty of switching languages within the same sentence. I do this with my family... all the time. And how about 3 or 4 languages? People who only speak one language seem to think this bizarre. But here is what happens: sometimes there is a word in a particular language that cannot be translated, and it just happens to be the proper word to express whatever it is I need to say. When you speak more than one language, I think your brain is automatically geared to function in a jumping manner. Your brain knows what the "proper" word is, and that is just the word that you must use. Besides, like you mentioned, it is extremely fun to jump around. There's something relaxing about it...

A wonderful post, Judy... as always.



Nevine said...

I'm sorry... first I forgot to sign my name... and then I signed it twice. Clearly my head is thinking in double gears... or maybe in double tongues...


Judith Mercado said...

"When you speak more than one language, I think your brain is automatically geared to function in a jumping manner."

I so agree. I would venture a guess that there is also a physical manifestation of this. It would be interesting to scan the brains of those who are multilingual versus those who are monolingual and see if there is a difference.

A Cuban In London said...

So, you're reading Rayuela. Have a happy read! :-) That's my novel of the year so far, unless Hillary Mantell's Wolf Hall makes change my mind when I begin to read it in a few weeks' time.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Thanks, Cuban, I will be providing a link to your May Rayuela book review in my post tomorrow.