Thursday, May 6, 2010

Language treason

On my way home from work a few weeks ago, I just happened to sit next to a Chilean Metro passenger who got off at the same stop I did. As we were walking down the platform toward the exit, he turned to me and inquired (in English), "Can I ask you something?"

It wasn't that difficult to realize how he'd known I was an English speaker: The entire time I'd been sitting next to him, I'd had the English translation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire open on my lap.

Instead of responding in English, though, I answered in Spanish. In the amount of time it took us to reach the exit and go our separate ways, it emerged -- also in Spanish -- that he had seen the movie version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- the first book in Larsson's Milennium trilogy -- while living in Norway last year and that yes, I was from the States.

While walking home from the Metro station, I replayed the conversation and pondered my choice of language. It hadn't been the first time I'd responded in Spanish to a question asked in English. Why is it, I wondered, that I tend to avoid my native language?

One could argue that an obvious reason is safety. Let's face it: While being foreign can be an advantage in some situations, it can make you more vulnerable in others. This was the reason I muttered "no" and walked away several months back when a guy approached me on the street late at night and asked if I spoke English.

It turned out that the guy was a lost Israeli tourist. I learned this when he followed me down the street (which provoked a brief moment of panic on my part) and asked me in broken Spanish if I knew where his hostel was. The hostel was just a few houses down from the apartment where I was living at the time, so I offered to walk with him. Unfortunately, this meant I faced a dilemma: His hostel and my apartment were five blocks away, which meant that there would undoubtedly by conversation involved. I had to decide whether to fess up or keep up the act.

I chose the latter because I was too embarrassed to tell him, "Hey, I actually do speak English. I lied to you back there because I thought you wanted to rob me." Looking back, this is exactly what I should have said, but it didn't seem that way at the time. What followed were five blocks of really slow Spanish and really exaggerated hand gestures. With each step we took, I felt even more absurd. Unfortunately, I was in too deep to quit.

But back to the guy on the Metro. Safety was -- as it always is -- a concern, although I was pretty sure he wasn't going to pull a knife on me on a subway platform with a bunch of witnesses looking on. Additionally, all my defenses tend to spring into place when strange men address me in English because it's something that smarmy guys have been known to do to hit on me. I've long since learned that muttering a curt answer in Spanish is usually a relatively effective way of letting a guy know that I'm not digging his "I could be your tour guide in Chile and in love" vibe.

To be honest, it also boils down to a matter of pride. I've worked damn hard to be able to speak good Spanish. While my high school classmates were watching Dawson's Creek, I was biting my nails to Mexican soap operas (even if I was taping Dawson's in the other room). I sought out bilingual summer jobs and read in Spanish for fun. I was a Spanish major in college, and while studying abroad in Chile, I intentionally took hard classes because I knew they would help me improve my language skills. After graduation, I moved to a Spanish-speaking country and have been living in one ever since. In other words, I've invested a heck of a lot of time in learning Spanish and, yes, am proud of the level I've achieved. This may be why I find it insulting when someone assumes I'm clueless just because the way I look or some other detail about me leads him or her to suspect that I may have been born elsewhere. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the people who make this assumption usually have kind intentions or that they may actually not be making an assumption at all; maybe, like me, they've busted their asses learning a foreign language and just want to practice it.

I would like to say that the list of factors behind my aversion to speaking English with strangers stops there, but as long as we're being honest, I have to admit that I don't think it does. Recently, another expat and I were discussing how living abroad has made us more comfortable with being the odd person out. We acknowledged that, no matter how long we live in Chile, we will always be foreign, different, odd. Furthermore, we arrived at the conclusion that this difference does not stay behind at customs but rather follows us home during trips to the U.S.; if Chileans cannot fully relate to us because they do not share our background, people in the States cannot fully relate to us because they do not share our present.

You would think that someone who’s recognized this and accepted it not only as isolating – which it can be – but as tremendously enriching as well would not care about fitting in with the crowd. However, the truth is that being the out-of-place element gets old after awhile. Most of the time, I love being a foreigner in Chile (or, if I’m in Minnesota, a local who has lived abroad), but there are times when the appeal of fitting in is hard to resist; alas, we never truly leave middle school. When a stranger speaks to me in English in Chile, it reminds me that I’ve chosen a misfit’s fate – and that it’s no longer optional.

Perhaps this would not bother me as much if I wore the signs of my otherness more visibly – as blonde hair or six feet of height, for example. If I had no hope of blending in, maybe I wouldn’t want to. Don’t get me wrong: There are plenty of Chileans who have been able to guess just by looking at me that I’m foreign. Other times, however, the evidence lies solely on my tongue. Even though I do have an accent, though, I always feel like less of a curiosity when I’m speaking the local language.

Whenever this happens, I feel as though I’ve somehow betrayed my native language. I love English. Yes, it’s the language of Shakespeare, but it’s also the language of my family and childhood friends and the language through which I learned to interpret the world and express my feelings about it. It seems wrong to deny my affiliation with it.

So here are my questions for you, expats: Do you ever feel that you’ve betrayed your native language? Have you resigned yourself to always being a square peg in a round hole?


karin said...

BUT did you like Larsson's books? I have named my dog "SALANDER" ...

lydia said...

liked the post.

i always reply in spanish, partly because im stubborn, i don't like swapping back and forth, i get sick of letting people practice their english on me (well, i mean i already do it enough, chances are that some random guy on public transportation is going to annoy me during a time i normally love to zone out and think) and lots of creepy people start out shouting things in english at me so kind of the safety/annoyance thing.

i dont like that my appearance makes everybody assume i wouldnt know spanish, and in general feel that the polite thing to do if you do want to approach me and speak in english is to maybe ask if i need/prefer english, or if they want to practice, state that intention to me.

sometimes out of being stubborn random people and i will conduct an entire conversation of me in spanish them in english.

Maeskizzle said...

hahahha, loved the post. I've dealt with similar language thoughts I think. I've never felt that I've betrayed English. In fact, I feel my Spanish acquisition has only made me more appreciative of English, expanded my English vocabulary and allowed me to look at English a little bit from "outside" the language. Plus, I count my lucky stars that I'm a native speaker of a language that is so useful in this day and age. And Spanish is also a useful language.

Great questions too!
I feel no need to speak with Spanish speakers in English if they speak to me in English, although I usually do because, rarely, *breathing on fingernails and buffing them on polarfleece* is their English better than my Spanish, and its just a matter of time for them to switch back to Spanish. And if they choose to continue in English, great for them! It's their chance to practice, so I let them. Most Chileans aren't bold enough to do that with me, especially if they hear me speak Spanish first. In fact, I even find it frustrating when someone says "I want to practice my English", and then one minute later they've switched back to Spanish (including my Chilean hubby when we lived in Chile). So I guess the reverse is true for me. I wish the Chileans who really wanted to practice their English, would do it with me. (V and I now speak lots of English and I'm usually the one who consciously or not switches back to Spanish, hehehe.)

And I just try to be really natural about being a square peg, and occasionally I do it so naturally people forget I'm square, and mistake me for being round.

hehehehe. Great post.
Dude, it's snowing!!!!! Ick!!!!! And the snow is collecting on the ground. We are supposed to get 1-2 inches!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Blah!

Sarita said...

I am (almost) six feet tall and used to have blond hair so obviously people speak to me in English all the time. I used to say, in Spanish of course, that I don't speak English because I'm German (which I'm not) just to avoid speaking in English.

This worked well until someone replied in German...thankfully it was a stranger whom I never saw again and I just said something rude and ignored him for the rest of the bus ride.

I no longer have blond hair, which has helped, but now when people say something in English I just stare at them confused and then reply "tu me estas hablando???" with a super chilean accent (not sure how i sound so chilean but it helps) and they leave me alone.

Not sure why it annoys me so much but I really dislike speaking/hearing English in public here, it just feels strange.

Ale Gomez said...

great post.. as usual :) Perhaps I could tell you the way I feel it as Spanish native speaker.
In my experience, I try so hard to speak and write good in English because it is essential in my future job. I think things could be better or easier for me whether I was born in an English speaker country. I actually don't have any feeling about my language, in my opinion it is just circumstantial.
And I think most people try to speak in English with you for two reasons: to practice or to flirt =)

Renée said...

Interesting post.

And I couldn't agree with Maeskizzle more on everything she mentioned in her first paragraph. Everything. I was going to write a bunch of similar stuff but for fear of being completely redundant, I'm just going to say "tal cual".

Jamie said...

Nah, I don't think there's such thing as betraying your L1. What does English care if you take a break from it, even avoid it like the plague? It's not going anywhere; it's in your head to stay. I mean, you couldn't avoid overhearing someone talking in English if you tried.

And yes, the square peg life is lonely and enriching. I feel ya.

Also, I admire that you stuck to your guns with the Israeli guy. How embarrassing would that have been to have waited through half the conversation and had to yell, "Your Spanish is horrible! OK OK! I speak English!"