Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Numbers Game or How I Made the Most Out of Living in an Area with a Small Spanish-speaking Population

People tell me I’m lucky to be in Florida because there are many Spanish speakers here. Well, yes and no. Yes, there are large numbers of Hispanics here (assuming they speak Spanish as well, although that’s not always the case) but they are not evenly distributed throughout the state. The largest concentration of Hispanics are in the bigger cities like Miami and Orlando. My town is much smaller and the percentage of Hispanics in my county according to the 2010 census is about 8% and almost 23% in the state as a whole. When I came to this area from Miami 30 years ago it was significantly less. Ironically it was back then, and in the years before the Internet, that I got most of my speaking practice. At that time I was making the most of the opportunities around me, mostly through international classmates and networking with friends. But their mere existence was not enough to guarantee the chance to hear and speak the language. For one, no one knew I was capable of sustaining a conversation until I did something about it and spoke up. Even when my best friend in college (a non-native major like me who had a similar level but had many social contacts) introduced me to her friends in Spanish, specifying to them that I could speak the language, I was still addressed in English. I quickly learned that I had to prove my ability to handle myself in a conversation by switching to Spanish and then sustained use of the language as a means of insisting on my preference. It most always worked.

Today, even though the numbers have increased dramatically, I no longer actively seek to have contact with the local Spanish-speaking community and consequently have fewer face-to-face encounters in the language. But what remains the same is the fact that in general, the Spanish speakers here also speak English and are integrated into the community and not marginalized. Because of that, if I want to use Spanish, I have to be the one to initiate the switch otherwise my interlocutor will go on obliviously in English. I have come to realize through my experiences that the number of speakers in an area doesn’t tell the whole story. If I hadn’t been a college student back when I was looking for people to speak with, I might have never even known there were any since I wouldn’t have been traveling in those circles. And even in Miami, a bilingual city, for all intents and purposes, I was not addressed in Spanish, a social reality that has not changed despite becoming fluent. Switching languages, for whatever purpose, falls to me. In the end, no matter how many Spanish speakers there may be in an area, the key is, in my humble opinion, making the most of the situation and hopeful becoming involved in the community so that through social contacts you can increase your language opportunities.

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