Speaking in Tongues

Spring 2015, Uncategorized

by Orfa Torres Fermín

A wordcloud based on this article. Design by worditout.com

A wordcloud based on this article. Design by worditout.com

While in line at the post office a few months ago, I witnessed a man eavesdropping on a Latina chatting with a female companion.

“Speak English,” he said. “You’re not in Mexico.”

The woman, seemingly ashamed, looked at her friend, lowered her voice and head, and continued to speak.

She wasn’t speaking to him.

She wasn’t even speaking Spanish.

I came to the United States of America, my adoptive motherland, when I was in 4th grade. At ten years old, I effortlessly spoke, wrote, read, and sang in Spanish. Soon after enrolling in the Worcester (Massachusetts) Public School system I was placed in ESL classes. I was extremely excited at the prospect of learning English and all that it entailed. I did my best to learn the language. I read English books at home and watched Full House, Punky Brewster, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in the belief that the more English TV I watched and the more English literature I read, the sooner I would learn English. A year and a half later, I was transitioned into English-only classes. There, I was constantly reminded of my accent and the importance of getting rid of it. I was placed in speech classes in order to work on my pronunciation. I worked hard to try to domesticate my unruly tongue.

My inability to master English pronunciation led me to the conclusion that there was something wrong with me. I am now an adult and continue to have an accent—a prominent and untamable one at that.  While I proudly remain fluent in Spanish, I now also manipulate the English language with pride. I think in both languages. I find that I am able to better rationalize watching and listening to the news in English but favor reading the newspaper in Spanish. I write better in English yet speak better in Spanish. As a consequence, much of my cognitive exchanges are spent filtering words from English to Spanish or vice versa.

I have met many people, who, like the younger me, feel the need to suppress their Spanish language and accents. They battle with their use of what linguists call code-switching (as well as language, code-switching also involves switching between gestures, social interaction, and culture). You are probably familiar with code-switching as Spanglish. The Spanish-speakers attempting to juggle two languages understand that in order to fit in they need to, like many before them, assimilate to the new language. Many of them walk around feeling the way I did as a child, that there is something wrong with them, a wrongness that is obvious the moment they open their mouths to speak.

By the end of this century, the Latino community will comprise the biggest minority group in the United States. By that time, since the use of Spanish is seldom encouraged, English, and not Spanish will be the mother tongue of most Latinos. This notion creates a problem for Latinos who are caught between two cultures and deal with the complexities of living between two languages on a daily basis.

Language plays a fundamental role in a person’s sense of self. Culture, which includes language, forms our beliefs and shapes our perception of reality. Culture allows people to understand their surroundings and communicate; as with language, culture helps the community transmit the philosophies dear to them.

Code-switching is an aptitude, yet it is profoundly discriminated against, most often by those who speak only one language. The Latino use of code-switching in the United States is a cultural performance deeply frowned upon. For the Latina writer, though, the use of code-switching is a necessity, a tool through which she is able to achieve autonomy. In literature, code-switching is recognized as a literary technique that allows for the alternation between two or more languages in the same text. It can be found in all forms of literature, and it is the natural result of the constant growth in the Hispanic population from the early nineteenth century through to today.

Although it can be argued that the use of code-switching in written text is a political statement against the monolithic use of English—this may be what the man in the line at the post office was worried about—it can also be argued that those who code-switch do it because it is part of their identity, a marker.  Code-switching is a representation of the reality of those who live in a liminal state, not only between vernaculars, but also between cultures.

According to Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist who pioneered research into cognitive development, “Language … is the tool of culture which enables social interaction, and thus the direction of behavior and attitudes.” Since culture plays an essential role in the cognitive development of a person, the language in which an individual communicates should not to be regarded as an insignificant.

Code-switching is shows the ambiguities of one who stands in an uncomfortable territory, a place of contradictions, illegitimacy, and manipulation. Code-switching is a language born out of boundaries. It is a mode of communication indispensable to achieving self-efficacy and subsequently self-expression.

Identity and belonging are crucial to the development of human beings. People who have a strong sense of their identity understand and accept where they come from–their cultural history, language, religion, and the environment that helped shape them. People achieve a sense of belonging when their culture is accepted rather than questioned, suppressed or judged.

Code-switching, in this sense, is more than a personal choice. It defines a person and allows him or her to achieve completeness. The failure to fully understand the immigrant experience, the reasons that drive people to leave their countries of birth and journey to the United States, their drives, beliefs, and what shapes them, is what keeps many from understanding that people who code-switch do not do so as a simple rejection of the English language or to keep monolinguals out, but rather because code-switching is the language that the newer generations have come to know as natural.

Orfa Torres Fermin is a Worcester resident and Clark University English and business student. She enjoys researching and writing about women and gender studies, cultural theory, and social and cultural marginalization. She is a self-confessed coffee aficionado, do-it-yourself(er), and photographer. Orfa believes in equality and hopes to live by her pen.

2 thoughts on “Speaking in Tongues

  1. Wonderful!

    Feeling rejected is nearly true for all immigrants, but soon enough, we grow to value our accents and individualism we gained from our combined cultures. This was how it was for me, at least.

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