Monday, May 9, 2011

Space and Language

By Lizzy Mirisola

In his essay “Aria”, Richard Rodriguez recounts his childhood as a Spanish-speaking student in an English only school with parents who spoke almost exclusively in Spanish.  When his academic performance begins to suffer on account of his lack of English proficiency and resulting insecurity when speaking, his parents enforce English usage within the household and Rodriguez and his siblings quickly become comfortable with the English language.  Simultaneously, Rodriguez’s parents struggle to learn English fluently and a divide between parents and children develops.  As their English proficiency grows, the children become less willing and less able to converse in Spanish.  Rodriguez demonstrates how this transition in language use, in certain ways, ends up making him feel more isolated than he had felt when he was unable to speak English in class to his peers and teachers.
One idea Rodriguez repeatedly returns to that I found particularly interesting is the concept of language being correlated with space and either being characterized as “private” or as “public”.  In class we’ve discussed code-shifting and style-switching at length.  Rodriguez’s conceptualization of Spanish being something private while English is meant for public usage resituates this argument on a more personal, but also more broad level.  While in class we tend to focus on societal norms as motivations for employing different languages and styles of language (such as whether an environment is viewed as being academic, casual, familial…etc), Rodriguez demonstrates how these processes can be intensely based on personal experience.  It seems evident that Rodriguez may have viewed Spanish as innately private because of some deep-seated anxiety or embarrassment associated with the use of that language among people outside of his family.  While he never confirms what past experiences may have led to this conceptualization of Spanish, it’s easy to guess what kinds of interactions with people outside of his family may have resulted in Rodriguez’s feelings about Spanish.  For me, I view this concept of keeping Spanish among family members similar to how one might approach dealing with a family secret or a “skeleton in the closet”.   Here, Spanish seems to be in some way embarrassing but also necessary to address, yet certainly not publically.
Another way in which Rodriguez’s public vs. private perspective of language differs from our usual views of code or style switching is that it situates language in a much more general context.  We usually think of these transitional tools as having many diverse circumstances under which they can be employed.  For instance a person can go from spending time with friends, to meeting a professor, to going on a job interview, to speaking with a parent, all the while altering their mode of speech.  Within these and other categories there are variations; for example a specific professor may be considered to be more of an acquaintance or mentor changing the format of the interaction between he or she and the student.  Conversely, Rodriguez paints a rather black and white picture regarding Spanish and English usages.  Spanish is private; English is public.  There is no more to be said.  If a Spanish speaking family happens to be in public in an English-speaking environment, it seems to be his belief that English is the appropriate means of communication, even if family members are only speaking with one another.  To me this seems extremely isolating, a point Rodriguez references in his conclusion, when he notes that there are two types of individuality: again private and public.  One may come at the expense of the other, as private individuality will decrease as one assimilates into society and redevelops a sense of individuality that is public, but presumably (and presumably more important) publically accepted.
The idea of language being spatially contained and contextualized is often spoken about in political discourse.  This concept essentially provides the basis for the English-only movement, which insists that other languages need not be accommodated and that all people living in the United States should be English proficient.  Bilingual education is a particularly touchy area within this movement, given that it is partially within the responsibilities of schools to help students become English proficient.  While many contest that maintaining all language skills (including native languages) of students is important and makes the transition to English easier, others have argued that immersion is the only way to educate students on the English language.  While searching for interesting news articles regarding bilingual education and its merits, I came across an article recounting a particularly prolific speech given by Newt Gingrich in April of 2007.  He exclaimed, “The American people believe English should be the official language of the government. ... We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto" to a cheering crowd (emphasis added).  Having been published by Fox News (which prides itself as “fair and balanced” as denoted under its logo), the article lacks any discussion of backlash against this statement, or even reasons why this correlation may not be particularly intellectual, useful or fair.   Needless to say (or maybe not, depending on what type of news stations you regularly tune into) there are many Spanish speakers who don’t live in impoverished neighborhoods.  There are many English speakers who do.  Gingrich is mocking foreign language use (presumably Spanish in particular since most Chinese, Japanese, French and other foreign language speakers wouldn’t classically be viewed as “ghetto”) by putting it into a highly stigmatized and negative spatial context.  For Gingrich, the space where Spanish is appropriate is in poor, urban neighborhoods.  Once these neighborhoods are exited, people must speak “the language of prosperity,” English. 
I think for most readers, there is not much that needs to be explained regarding the fallacies of Gingrich’s argument, which by most accounts is racist, elitist and largely delusional (not including that of Fox New).  However, what I believe is important to note is the way that this situation can be exacerbated by arguments like Rodriguez’s, which closely correlate language use and specific spaces.   Of course this process is cyclical, given that there are reasons why Rodriguez feels compelled to consider Spanish a language better relegated to the private sphere.  He has likely been socialized to feel this way by those like Gingrich who have trivialized foreign languages, especially Spanish.  Even so, it is dangerous to feed into these notions of space and language correlation too much from any perspective (whether it be Gingrich’s experience of being born and raised in an English-speaking family or Rodriguez’s bilingual-dominant childhood).  Rodriguez seems intent on maintaining an English for public use agenda, utilizing the Anglicized “Richard” instead of his original name “Ricardo,” a differentiation he calls attention to in his piece.  As for Newt Gingrich, his publicist was likely writing this apology speech the moment the word ghetto left his mouth.  Watch if you care to, though I can’t promise it’s particularly satisfying (spoiler: he’s been taking Spanish language classes! What a guy…)

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