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.