Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What Kind of Spanish Do You Speak?

I’ve been asked this from time to time by my students and by friends, acquaintances and contacts online. It’s a moot point for a native speaker or heritage speaker (in the US, this is usually someone who learned the language at home with family but educated in English and usually dominant in English), whose accent and vocabulary are recognizable as a particular variety of Spanish. It’s a different story for us for whom Spanish is a second or foreign language. Sometimes it’s like being in a linguistic no-man’s-land. Sometimes it’s like being caught in a tug-of-war with pressure coming from two sides.

On the one hand we have schools, teachers and professors who want us to be familiar with different varieties of Spanish (surely to be able to understand as many people possible) and somewhat paradoxically, to develop a ‘neutral’, meaning non-regional sounding, Spanish. On the other, there is the possibility of using those words or expressions with someone who doesn’t use them or sometimes, even recognize them, who in turn, exerts some pressure (often, in the form of ‘correction’), as a native of a given variety, on the second language user to speak as they do. So, when we second language speakers happen to use a word not usually used by the person we are talking to, the reaction could range from outright rejection- ‘That’s not correct’, to a mini lesson in dialectology, with a gentle insistence – ‘That’s not what we say in my country’, with the subtle implication that either the person isn’t sure about what some other country does or that we might want to speak their way. Now, I have seen native speakers from different countries ask each other about how things are said in the other country but when that happens, it’s among accepted equals who are not questioned about the use of words or phrases in their own country.

I’ve had only a few of these experiences. For me, they have mostly been questions of Peninsular vs. Latin American varieties. Even when I know for a fact that what I say is acceptable over here, on occasion, it seems impossible to defend my lexical choice, because I’m not ‘from’ any particular place and therefore don’t ‘speak’ that type of Spanish. Consequently in that particular moment, I cannot ‘claim’ any ownership of the language. But one advantage of having been exposed to such different ‘dialects’ and the blending of them is that no one knows where I’m ‘from’ but I’m almost never from where my speaking partner is. This is of course a matter of accents; everybody is listening for that.

I recall while I was in Spain as a student, a few months after I started renting a room from a Spanish lady, I got a call from my then Puerto Rican boyfriend. When he and I starting talking I ‘changed’ my accent, to the more familiar Cuban-influenced one that I default to when I’m talking with certain people. After the conversation, the lady remarked: “you sound like a Mexican!” I know there is nothing Mexican about my Spanish but I realized that for her, that just meant “Latin American” or not from Spain. Shortly after I returned to the U.S. I called a Puerto Rican station I listened to in my area. I talked to the DJ in Spanish and he commented that I sounded Spanish. I was surprised because I have nothing of Castillian in my speech but again, it was his perception and recognition that it wasn’t like his.

Nonetheless, with regards to vocabulary, I often wish that in addition to the so-called ‘neutral’ Spanish I have been developing, supposedly so I can easily speak to many different people, I could also have a more specific one allows me to use more colorful colloquial expressions and other phrases for more domains. This way I would have a full range of expressions at least for one area and not be limited to what is understood everywhere (slang and many idiomatic expressions can vary considerably from one country or region to another) and at the same time, align myself with a particular variety that I can use as a base, that I know is consistent in its manner of expression, from where I could add on other countries’ ways of describing or naming things and hopefully that would help me to keep them straight. I’m mostly interested in Colombian, because of my husband but also Venezuelan and Puerto Rican because of the demographics of my area and the people that I have had contact with over the years.

What kind of Spanish (or English) do you speak? If you speak Spanish or English as a second language, I invite you to share here with other readers what variety or varieties you are interested in.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

My Accent in Spanish

I’ve been obsessed with my accent for many years. I have been told it’s neutral and that that’s good because it shouldn’t be regional sounding. No one, for the most part, beyond a few initial phrases, takes me for a native speaker, although I do seem to pass for a heritage speaker despite the fact that my looks often override everything that comes out of my mouth. Online, people I’ve just met, without being able to see me, often tell me I sound like a native, although not from their country, but nonetheless, that’s the biggest compliment I could get and it’s very satisfying. Considering the fact I’ve acquired the sound system in the U.S. (through the Cuban community in Miami) in late childhood and have never lived for an extended period out of the country, I have plenty to be proud of. However, the concern about my accent has persisted until recently.

A few months ago, in a conversation with my husband, I came to realize that my situation isn’t as unique or particular to a non-native in the U.S. as I thought. My husband, who is originally from Colombia has been here a long time now without regular contact with others from there. In fact, he really only speaks Spanish with me and the Mexicans with whom he works. Over the years he apparently has lost his Colombian accent from being in a country where one gets exposed to a variety of accents. No one can tell where he is from, even Colombians, who have a hard time believing he was born and raised there.

So, if a native speaker who was brought up in the language can no longer be recognized as a member of his ‘own’ speech community because of prolonged contact with a variety of other accents, I shouldn’t feel bad about my own perceived shortcoming.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Shifting to English

     Just a few days ago I came to realize that I have been slowly shifting to English only instead of trying to use Spanish on a regular basis. There is nothing pushing or forcing me to use Spanish. After all, I’m the U.S. and English is my first and primary language. English is way too convenient, even comfortable, to make any effort to continually use Spanish when I don’t have to. And I never have to. However, if I want to keep my fluency sharp and maintain my skills, there can’t be any giving into complacency. But this had never been an issue because I’ve always been extremely motivated, driven, and as some people who know me have described it, like a bulldozer.
     Up until a few years ago as I had for most of my life, I did everything I could to make Spanish a part of my everyday life. I had gotten satellite TV to have a couple dozen channels in Spanish, listened only to Spanish language radio in my area, made friends from Latin America, spoke only Spanish to my husband (who is from South America), addressed bilingual people in Spanish before English could be established in the conversation, read newspapers and magazines in the language-anything to create a mini-immersion experience for myself. So, where did my motivation go?
     Originally, my primary motivation had been integrative, a longing to be accepted as a part of the local Latin community as a legitimate speaker of the language.  I had many successes as well as failures that come with trying to cross cultural borders within the U.S.  With time, as I starting teaching, my motivation became more instrumental, with a focus on maintaining my level for professional purposes as a high level of proficiency was integral to my professional as well as personal identity.  But this change in orientation is directly connected to my husband’s experience.  When he finally became fluent in English at first we still used Spanish because it was the default language for us-the one in which we met and established our relationship.  At the same time along with the improvement of his linguistic skills, he was becoming very Americanized and wanting to be less and less involved with any Hispanics in our area.  As I realized that I had the ultimate prize, a Spanish-speaking husband with whom I was able to sustain a relationship in his language and through his culture, along with his growing distance from the Hispanic community, my culturally oriented motivation began to fade into the background while language-as-a-tool-for-communication whenever I chose to use it came to the foreground. 
     Even though my Spanish is a part of my identity, and it still is important that others are aware of it, it doesn’t concern me as much as it did before. Through my husband’s influence I have lessened my contact with the community and have come to feel that I don’t always have to use Spanish as a social marker.  I have seen that because he no longer has emotional ties to his homeland (he feels more American than Colombian, which other Latins can’t or don’t want to understand-even seeing it as some sort of betrayal to his ‘roots’) much less to the local Hispanic community, and perhaps as a consequence doesn’t take advantage of using his native language as a social marker either, and therefore faces a certain type of rejection, why should I be concerned about it?  It’s not the exact same thing, but there is some overlap, that of linguistic and cultural crossings.  In observing his experiences with them I’ve learned to downplay their impact, just as he has. 
     As for using more English when I could use Spanish for whatever reason, I know I’m bilingual enough that my fluency doesn’t fade with time but I’m more picky about when, with whom and for what purpose I use Spanish.  Home language is routine and store or restaurant transactions are not challenging, linguistically (even when it’s complicated).  They don’t present any type of ‘practice’.  The only challenge in the latter would be to not get acknowledged as a ‘learner’.  What is more interesting is explaining and solving a problem by phone, like TV repair, billing or banking problems, or arranging for some warranty work on the house. That at least requires more thinking on your feet and using some semi-technical terms.  But that’s the good thing about being bilingual in the US-using one language or another when you want to and for me that’s a way to keep from shifting back to only English.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Advice on Reaching Advanced-Low on the OPI

In the last few years, I have helped several in-service and pre-service teachers reach Advanced-Low on the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI).  Most had already taken the interview and received an Intermediate-High rating; a couple had gotten Intermediate-Mid.  Generally speaking, because their current or future career was at stake, they were naturally nervous, but also uncertain about why they had not been assigned Advanced. There were several misconceptions about what the OPI was, what was expected of them at the different levels and how they would be judged.  I’d like to post here the advice I gave to those I tutored, much of which are answers to frequently asked questions about the OPI.

What is the interview like?

The ACTFL Guidelines describe what a speaker can do at each of 4 major levels, Novice, Intermediate and Superior in terms of global functions. See the description of Advanced here. It takes the form of a conversation but has a structure that includes a warm-up, a series of probes, to see if you can handle higher level speaking tasks, level-checks, to verify the level you function at most comfortably and consistently , a role-play and a wind-down. Even though it feels like a fairly casual conversation, it’s important that you don’t limit your responses to short answers but rather elaborate on them. At the Advanced level the interviewer will try to encourage full length narration and description, albeit indirectly, with questions like “cuéntame más” or “¿cómo es /era?”, for example.

What questions will I be asked?

There is no pre-set list of questions. The interviewer doesn’t have one. Each interview is unique and the questions come from the individual’s own background and experience.

Does my grammar have to be perfect?

No, but overall, your language has to be understandable to a native speaker not used to speaking with a non-native. In other words, the listener doesn’t have to figure out your meaning, despite your errors. You can make your meaning clear using what you know of the language.
Do I have to know the subjunctive?

Not necessarily. Speakers at this level have probably studied the subjunctive and have some familiarity with it, enough to use some of the most common phrases. You may find yourself needing to use it from time to time in sentences like, “Quiero que venga el próximo fin de semana.” or “Yo esperaba que me llamara pero nunca lo hizo.” But if you are not so good at it, you could possibly avoid it, in the above sentences, for example, by saying instead, “Quiero verlo…” or “Esperaba su llamada…”

Do I have to know specific vocabulary or can I circumlocute?

An Advanced level speaker is not expected to have precise vocabulary; it is usually generic. If fact, the ability to circumlocute is expected and needed especially during the role-play, which for the Advanced level is one in that you must handle an otherwise routine situation or transaction that has a complication or unexpected turn of events. It requires you to think on your feet and so, circumlocution will help you do that.

I get nervous under pressure. What can I do about that?

The best thing to gain confidence is by practicing the required functions for this level- narrating and describing in all major time frames, present, past and future and handling a complicated situation or transaction- involving different topics.

I thought I did pretty well in the interview. Why did I get rated Intermediate-High?

You might not have made many mistakes, although Intermediate and even Advanced-Low speakers are rarely error-free. What is important is that your narrations and descriptions be in cohesive paragraphs, not just a series of sentences. They should include connecting phrases showing sequence or cause and effect, such as primero, después, antes de + inf., más tarde, entonces, aunque, como (since), and por eso, to name a few.  The good news is that Intermediate-High means you can perform the functions of Advanced but not consistently and not across a variety of topics. You may also be able to request an analysis of your interview in which they will suggest an alternate way to respond to the questions you were given.

I hope these comments will aid those who will be taking the interview in the future. If any reader has any other questions about the OPI, please post them here.

Best of luck.

UPDATE:  I've posted a second part to this post with more pieces of advice.  Read it here

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Linguistic Loyalty of Non-Native Speakers

     As non-native speakers who come to the language without the cultural influence of family, it isn’t unusual for us to develop a special affinity for a particular country and its way of speaking (accent, regionalisms, etc.).  Sometimes it’s that first contact through traveling abroad, an inspirational teacher, a close friend or sweetheart that becomes a window on another culture and its sounds.  My orientation started out quite naturally towards Cuban Spanish, since I grew up in Miami but I didn’t stay long enough in that city for it to become complete.  I moved away before I gained fully fluency but the sounds of that pronunciation took hold early on.  After that in Central Florida, it seemed every couple of years another region influenced me.  Next it was Venezuela, a country I “adopted” for a stretch of 10 years, later Puerto Rico, Nicaragua and Colombia, each one important because of friends or loves.  Such natural exposure to different regionalisms during my college years allowed me to explore the lexical richness of the language and learn to understand highly colloquial language from diverse areas.  I didn’t think much of it until one day I found myself chatting with some Latin American students at the school where I was teaching ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages).  Then it all hit home.
      After classes were over, a small group of students were still on campus, chatting as they waited for a ride home.  They knew me, although not very well, and that I spoke Spanish and as I passed by engaged me in their conversation.  The topic soon turned to vocabulary differences among their countries- Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico and Honduras.  They took turns asking things like, ‘What does ….mean in your country?  Do you say…?’  Then they would comment on its usage or acceptance in their own place of origin.  No one asked me directly but I was able to participate in a different, more passive way.   For just about every word anyone said, not only did I know the meaning of it, I also reacted at the same time and in same way as the representative of that country did (except for Honduras).  They noticed that and it would confirm for them my understanding and use of their language.  Most all of the words were slang, colloquial or vulgar.   But the interesting thing about this conversation was how it felt at an emotional level as I bonded linguistically first with one person, then another, but not all of them at once.  It was as if a piece of my soul was yanked out to stand next to one person in linguistic solidarity with them, feeling for a moment like their ‘paisano’, then pulled in a different direction to stand with another and back to my ‘neutral’ corner inside myself as both outsider and knowledgeable observer when a word carried no emotional weight for me.  Words like ‘chévere’ used by most of the group, including myself, let me fit in with the majority and not feel like I had to choose sides, but when it came to a phrase like ‘estar arrecho’, with distinct meanings, for the most part, in Venezuela (molesto) and Colombia (horny), it was a strange sensation of being in two places at once emotionally yet feeling psychologically like one should take precedence over the other.  In the end, the Colombian meaning won out because it had been years since I had regularly used the word in the sense Venezuelans would give it and now because of my Colombian husband, it had a much more immediate impact. 
      When I have thought back on that conversation, I was pleased to know that I had fully internalized these words or phrases to the point that I reacted simultaneously with the native speakers whose regionalisms I was familiar with.  However, it did cause me to wonder about issues of linguistic identity that didn't seem easily resolved and that I continue to ponder.