Sunday, February 19, 2012

Whom Do You Talk To In Your Second Language?

I used to talk to anyone when I was learning Spanish. Every Spanish speaker was potential practice. Although I never said anything like “I’m learning Spanish will you talk with me?” , I would either look for an excuse to approach a person or sometimes in social settings, I’d go up to people and ask “¿Tú hablas español?” just the way I had seen native speakers do amongst themselves when they wanted to connect with other Spanish speakers. I too wanted to engage in this kind of cultural and linguistic bonding. It usually worked; I made friends and got natural ‘practice’ out if it and consequently, more confidence in speaking.

These days, I’ve become more selective about whom I choose to address in Spanish. I don’t need ‘practice’ per se, and the type of motivation I had in the past has been fading. I came to realize this just a few weeks ago when I went to an auto parts store to pick up a part for my husband who was repairing his truck. When I got there, I saw that one of the employees was bilingual (next to his name tag, it said “También hablo español”). I thought for a minute about asking for the part in Spanish but I decided against it. It would be weird, that is, awkward, socially, and there was no reason for both of us to use Spanish. English would have been the assumed preferred language because we are in the U.S. and Spanish is a minority language here in my area. I also imagined that employee would assume I preferred English and was simply practicing the language and in reaction to that would more than likely just switch to English. I figured the inertia to overcome that situation wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Besides the issue of negotiating the most efficient language to use for the transaction, there was no possibility of cultural camaraderie so I just used English.

Under what circumstances would you speak to someone in a naturalistic setting (not a learning situation where both you and the other person are in the role of student and teacher, respectively)? I invite all my readers to share their stories!


  1. Yo me siento tonta, o tal vez egoísta, si me acerco a otra persona sólo para "practicar". No quiero suponer que la otra persona quiera hablar conmigo. Si tengo algo que decir, lo hago. Pero me cuesta hacer "small talk" hasta con mis compatriotas que hablan inglés. Me encantaría tener con quien practicar. Pero a pesar de que haya una comunidad grande de hispanohablantes aquí en mi cuidad, casi nunca hablo con nadie. Es triste :(

  2. I would have probably used Spanish with the employee in the auto parts store. I totally get where you're coming from and your reasoning makes sense but for me it would have been more of a 50 per cent chance kind of thing. What I felt like in the moment. It's the whole point of being bilingual: you have the choice to speak either or. And if he hears an accent and he decides to switch to English, I can see how that can be awkward but that won't stop me from using a language whenever I feel like it. I personally don't think it's big deal if he were to switch to English.
    But then again I can see how someone would want to avoid that awkward moment.

  3. Hello, I was just reading your blog and it's interesting what you say about languages. Trying not to force language situations to a maximum, like the relationship between teacher and student.
    I think you mean using the language naturally witout having the impresison that one of speakers is giving a lesson to the other. That's exactly how I used to feel when I met an Eramus student at the Uni before being a teacher. Thanks for sharing your views. Bye-bye from Galicia