Sunday, November 15, 2009

Looks Can Be Deceiving

When I go into a Latin restaurant or grocery store, I always hope I will be addressed in Spanish, as if everyone could read my bilingual mind but of course why should that happen when I look so "gringa".  In the past I have initiated transactions in Spanish in an attempt to determine the language to be used but my appearance can cause interference and often prompts switching to English on the part of my interlocutor.  Starting in Spanish seemed preferable in that I could have a better chance at controling the language and discouraging the use of English.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.  I know that these types of interactions are complex.  What language is used depends on many factors.  I often assume the other person is bilingual because of the demographics of my town but the reverse in never true.  On the contrary, because of the way I look, the burden of proof that I can hold my own in Spanish is on me.  My current strategy is to not force the issue and respond in the same language that I am addressed in.  If it is Spanish, good for me.  If it is in English, I've learned to let it go because most of the time the quality of the "practice" is not worth it, although that's not the point.

I've had many bilingual encounters over the years where language choice was affected by how I and other Spanish-speakers perceived my identity.  Below are some stories about similiar situations I found myself in a few months ago.
My husband asked me to pick up some prepared food for us to share from a local Latin grocery store I go to from time to time.  When I got there I called him on my cell to let him know what was available that day.  I may have spoken to him in Spanish (he's Colombian), but I know I ordered in Spanish.  At the end of the counter, just a few steps from me, was another customer, a woman, observing our interaction.  I moved closer to where she was to pay at the register and she said in unaccented American English:  "I never would have thought you spoke Spanish!"  For once, I took it in stride and told her that I get that comment a lot. We chatted briefly.  Are you Puerto Rican? Yes, from New York, she said, but English is my first language.  Sensing her openness, I told her I was born here in the U.S. too but that I was half-Cuban, partly in an effort to signal membership as a potential heritage speaker.  Of course, it's also a bit of a joke, because I was born in Miami.  She didn't question my comment; she apparently believed it.  My intention was to see if that was possible from her point of view given my accent, fluency and appearance but at the same time to recast those skills as belonging to someone whose family spoke Spanish rather than having learned the language detached from that experience.  In my case I identify more with the former than the latter because of how I acquired it and so, sometimes in trying to express my unique and complex relationship with the language, I find it easier to try to position myself in a conversation as a legitimate speaker.  That's what I chose to do in the exchange described below.

I had already ordered food from the Colombian restaurant where I have a very cordial relationship with the owners and their family.  When I arrived another customer was at the counter to pick up her order.  As she reached for the bag in front of her, the owner's mom who worked there told her in Spanish, that's for Anita (me) and went on to explain that there had been a mix-up and her order wasn't ready yet.  The lady turned to me and translated what was just said in English, probably to be polite.  I responded in Spanish saying that I had understood everything.  The mom quickly added, as she walked to the back of the restaurant, that I was a teacher and spoke the language very well,  implying that was the reason I knew Spanish.  I could see she was constructing an identity for me based on this information, and her previous experiences with others who seem like me:  gringa-studies-goes-abroad-learns-to-speak-becomes-teacher. A disinterested 'ohhh' was the reaction.  Since that categorization does not wholly represent who I am, I decided to offer an alternate identity and represent myself as a heritage speaker.  I told her I was half-Cuban. Again, not to try to be what I'm not but to attempt to explain my background in just a few words and in a way that could make the most sense.  I still got the same reaction; I don't think she cared about any of this.  Although she didn't question my comment I wish she had because then I would know to what extent it was credible.  I had a  temporary satisfaction of finding a sort of niche for myself, nonetheless, I am left with the uneasy feeling of knowing that I continue struggling to come to terms with my identity whether it is of my own making, or one given to me by others.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Spanish Major and Professions

When I decided to major in Spanish, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, so the path to my chosen profession was pretty clear-cut.  The information about what was required to get certified and the courses needed to get there were readily available.  Some of my classmates, as well as people I meet today online, are not too keen on teaching and hope to use their degree in some other career.  If they know what that is, they may be more likely to have a double major or to take courses in that field to prepare themselves not only out of interest in that area but also because they realize that another language is only a tool to assist them in doing something else.  I think sometimes we language oriented people lose sight of this fact.  Assuming that upon graduation a student is proficient enough to do an entry-level job in a given field, what would this be?  It is highly unlikely that he will be hired just for having some bilingual skills (much less in an area with a bilingual population) without some other skill or background knowledge.  Just take a look on any jobs web site and do a search with the word Spanish or bilingual and you will see that the listings are for particular jobs or professions. If a student does get such a position that requires bilingual abilities , he will need language skills in all the modalities (listening, speaking, reading and writing).  Unfortunately, most university programs focus on literature and little on practical professional skills such as business writing.  A student interested in expanding his linguistic repertoire would be better off in a college that offers a variety of language courses for the professions-for example:  Spanish for Business, Spanish for Medical Professionals, Legal Spanish, etc. 
If a Spanish major has his heart set on a language-oriented career other than teaching which usually means translation and interpretation, he should be realistic about the work involved in reaching the high levels of proficiency needed for this field, which are way beyond what is required for teachers and usually attained in a university program.  He would do well to find an undergraduate, and subsequently, a graduate program in translation or interpretation.  There he would obtain the skills needed to be successful in this career and eventually certification from ATA (American Translators Association).
There may be some undergraduate degree or certificate programs in translation but most are graduate-level and usually require very high levels of proficiency in the native and target languages.  What's more, translators and interpreters usually specialize in a particular field such as medical, legal, business, real estate, etc.  And while dictionaries are consulted, it helps to understand the underlying concepts of that field because it is never simply words or terms that are translated but rather ideas, and being familiar with them would assist a translator more than if he weren't familiar with them.
These are just a few things to keep in mind when considering how Spanish could be part of a future career.