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.

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