Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Bilingual Experience - Street vs. Straight

By: Cynthia Camacho

In analyzing how college students relate to being both Latino and bilingual, Urciuoli discusses the complex relationship between their views of using localized or “street” dialects of Spanish and academic or “proper” Spanish as an academic subject.  Signaling such as code switching and/or using other references such as clothing that identify an appropriation of “Latinidad” can often be markers for staking the claim of a Latino identity.  There are also issues associated with the claim of being an “authentic” Latino vs. “non-authentic”.  

For example if a Latino identifies as bilingual, then the specific type of Spanish which they speak can be used to identify them, and this identification can have either positive, negative, or neutral perceptions based on the observer.  Specifically, it can divide them into unique categories, which tend to be associated with different levels of social hierarchical status, which differentiate their ethnic class ratios, ethnographies, and/or subgroups.

In my personal experience, the norms of Spanish language correctness have impacted my self-perception, and have sometimes left me in a juxtaposed position to those who are highly skilled in academic Spanish.  Being brought up in a Cuban urbanized neighborhood, often speaking using localized forms of street slang in my daily encounters with the neighborhood “bodega”, left me fluent in a form of Spanish which is often seen as marked by those who feel academic Spanish is the only proper form.  As a result, when I am in certain company, I find myself trying to speak a more traditional Spanish, which makes it harder for others to classify me simply by my linguistic form.  I feel that by spending the time to learn a non-marked dialect of the Spanish language, I will enable myself to be in a position where the others that I am interacting with can focus on my intellect, as opposed to whatever marked or pre-constructed notions that may be associated with my urban Latino upbringing.  

Speaking a localized dialect of Spanish is often used as part of viewing “Latino” as a globalized identity.  For example when I am in another city or country, and I come across another Spanish speaking individual, the realization that our dialects mark a Spanish upbringing, immediately creates a bond to where both of us are part of Latino community.

From this starting point, we often begin to share stories of our diverse ancestry and background, which while often geographically, culturally, and sociologically different, is connected through our common roots in the Spanish language and identifies us as part of the global Latino community.  This identification can include code switching, which provides more information and context about the speakers and their backgrounds than can often be conveyed in a conversation limited to a single dialect.  The location of the conversation can often have a significant impact on the connection and self identification that takes place.  For instance, if I meet another Spanish speaking individual in my home town of Miami, where the percentage of Latino persons is very high, I am more likely to categorize them more quickly in to an ethnic classification, such as Cuban, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, etc. and the context of our conversation will likely continue as we are juxtaposed by our heritage.  We will for example talk about our families, where they were born, the traditions that we have inherited, and the similarities and the differences between the neighborhoods that we grew up in.  On the other hand, if I meet another Spanish speaking Latino at a college class at NYU, where the percentage of Latino students is in the 10% range, we are more likely to continue our conversation from the context of being part of the NYU Latino community, in a similar way to what Urciuoli described when she said that Latino’s often categorize themselves as such in “response to the overwhelming whiteness of the environment” that they are in.  I think that what she is trying to say is that people in general have a need to identify as part of a larger group.  However, we also like the group to be somewhat exclusive, therefore depending on the surrounding context, we will act in different ways to express our membership in these subgroups.  The idea that I am part of a 10% Latino subgroup at NYU is interesting because although I can closely identify with others in that subgroup.  From a purely statistical perspective, the majority of my interactions will clearly be with those who are on the outside of the subgroup.   As a result, when even a small group of individuals within the subgroup come together, we tend to have an immediate connection.  

According to Urciuoli, it is the overwhelming sense of being in a small minority group that brings this solidary response of rethinking myself as “Latino” vs. Cuban or some other subgroup.  As such, when I want it to, my Latino identity can now be more easily morphed through my attendance at NYU into a more academically centered version of myself.  While some people who I associate with would potentially see my use of traditional or classroom Spanish as highbrow, others would see it as an indicator of my expanded knowledge and therefore as symbolic capital which potentially provides me with a foundation for upward mobility in society.  In addition, where in the past, my use of street or slang Spanish may have been viewed as a cultural deficit, but now my ability to speak a more traditional or classroom version of the language can be used to cast my bilingualism as an important and valuable resource that I bring to any number of business or social situations.   Of course as needed, I can always interlace the street or slang words and code switch to blend into a situation as needed.   When viewed this way, my current state of bilingual includes two forms of Spanish, and two forms of English (proper and street), and can use my ability to switch all of these based on the social context that I am in at any given time.

The article from Urciuoli clarified a number of ways in which bilingual skills are about much more than the ability to speak two languages.  For example, many of the students in her article described their bilingual experiences as a “shared culture”, whereby they shared not only the ability to speak two languages, but also to identify with each other through the sharing of different cultural bonds such as music, dancing, food, and of course differences in dialect.  Additionally, the potential to leverage the emergence of Spanish as a “World Language”, can increase the value of someone in the corporate workplace with bilingual skills that include Spanish.

In conclusion, after the reading, I now more clearly understand that there are many dimensions to bilingualism beyond the obvious ability to speak two languages.  Although language and culture so often go hand in hand, it is interesting to think about the possibility of classroom or “correct” Spanish to bring bilingual skills to the forefront of my marketable skills and social expansion.  Many possibilities extend from the thinking brought out in this article, and if nothing else, it is clear that the ability to understand and control the various dialects and to code switch according to the current set of circumstances is a very powerful skill that is worth nurturing.

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