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.


  1. My English is a sort of "neutral" midwestern -- it is a blander version of what is spoken in lower Michigan or Northern Indiana. If I am in the south or west, people know that I am "not from there", but I have no distinct accent that would cause anyone to link me to either of these two states specifically.

    My Spanish is probably similar -- a watered-down version of Colombian Spanish, with lots of Mexicanisms that I have adopted, as well as an unwanted (sorry to offend!) Mexican accent that I have been fighting off for the last several years. Colombian speakers will say that I "still sound Colombian" (or have no accent) until something emerges and causes them to stop, giggle and exclaim, "Now, THAT was Mexican!" Other South American speakers, however, say that my accent is distinctively Colombian, with which I would tend to disagree because I can hear that it has "softened" overall.

    In general, I just do not want to sound European, whatever that means! I want my English to be "American", I want my Spanish to be South American, I want my Portuguese to be Brazilian, and if I ever speak enough French to have any sort of an accent, I would want it to be French Canadian or Haitian. I might take some heat on this, but I am tired of having people imply or directly assert that European accents are inherently better! Language is actively mutating. Therefore -- grammar rules not withstanding -- there is no true, fixed "standard" in terms of lexicon or stylistics. Even grammar is in a constant state of flux, so what is shunned today will be the norm tomorrow!

    I also think that there is a whole new dialect spoken here in the US. In general, I find it both normal and acceptable that there should be a whole new set of words for people who are linked together geographically. While my colleagues frown upon the use of things like, "Sra, puedo ir a mi locker?", I realize that it is just the function of this culture ... what are you going to call it if you do not call it a locker? If you use armario, one of those metal school things is not what comes to mind! Even the use of anglicisms like troca are fine with me, as long as people know that when they go home to grandma, they need to use camioneta (or camión or whatever...every road leads to a dialectical difference...).

    A very interesting topic, indeed.

  2. Well, I was born and raised in Houston, Texas (yes, very close to Mexico) and I am 100% sure that I speak just like a Mexicana, haha, and it's awesome. I've also travelled and spent a summer and Spain in which my accent did shift for a little bit. However, once I arrived back in the States, I went right back to sounding like a Mexican. I'm just convinced it's now my natural accent ;)

  3. If you pronounce your S's somewhat emphatically, then that may be why the DJ said you had a Spanish accent. I currently talk with the Castilian accent (at least, such is my intention) but initially I too spoke with a neutral Latin American accent and the same thing happened to me; a Costa Rican guy I was talking with on SharedTalk said I sounded like a Madrileño. When I recounted this episode to a Mexican friend of mine, she chalked it up to the way I pronounce my s's (which has always been closer to the Apical phoneme used in Peninsular Spanish. Probably because of all the interviews with Salvador Dali I watched when I started out.) This is even more likely to have been the reason in your case since Puerto Ricans usually either aspirate or eliminate s's altogether.

  4. My Spanish isn't proficient enough for me to define an accent or dialect, other than generic Latin American, which I taught myself starting in my 40s.

    I was born in Colorado and moved to New England when I was 9, and where I've lived the majority of my life since then, including the last 25 years in Massachusetts. I have never adopted a New England accent, and my kids, who were 3 years and 3 months when we moved from upstate New York, have not either. My wife, who grew up in upstate New York, has "no accent", so they speak pretty much the way both of us do.

    On the rare occasion when anyone around here comments on my accent, they assume I am from somewhere in the Midwest, or at least somewhere west of Worcester (pronounced Wuhstah) in the great emptiness beyond the Hub of Greater Boston.

    The point is that my accent is generic middle American. I'm somewhat a student of dialects, and I think the "neutral" accent starts in Connecticut, heads west through upstate New York, Pennsylvania (except Philly and Pittsburgh), Ohio, (steering clear of the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes, each of which has a distinct accent), Indiana, central Illinois, Iowa (which famously has more than its share of national news broadcasters because of the neutral accent), the central plains, the central and northern Rockies, ending on the West Coast with its general blandness of accent.

    I had a girlfriend my freshman year in college in the Boston area who was a year ahead of me. She was from Oklahoma, but by the time I knew her, she had pretty much lost her Oklahoma accent. In fact, I now realize she talked just about how Elizabeth Warren - Massachusetts' new senator who was born in OK - does now!

    On the other hand, I had a roommate from Texas; about halfway through freshman year, another roommate was giving him a hard time and told him he was losing his accent. He came up to me later that day and said with the most worried look, "Tay-ed, do you think ah'm losin' my Texas ack-say-int?" I laughed and said, no Bill, you don't need to worry about it.

    The point is that accent can be as much a matter of choice as anything. My cousins who stayed in Colorado when my family moved east have strong western drawls, and in my younger years, when I spent any amount of time with them I found myself picking up some of it because I liked the sound of it and what it represented to me from my childhood experience.