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Spanish outside of the classroom

Written By: readingredhead on November 28, 2007 1 Comment

I took four years of Spanish in high school, because I knew that if I wanted to get into a good college I would have to have a good background in a foreign language. I wasn’t bad at it – I got A’s and I learned about grammatical structures and verb tenses I’d never bothered to think about in English, and along the way perhaps small facts about culture in Spanish-speaking countries seeped in. But while Spanish was not a difficult class, it was also not a motivating one. I come from Southern California, so it seemed like the most practical language to learn, but I didn’t see anything attractive about it. It was just easy.

Another thing that’s kept me from feeling enthusiastic about Spanish is that, although my hometown is three hours’ drive from the Mexican border, and the world I grew up in includes a growing number of people who speak Spanish as a first language, I don’t feel confident talking in Spanish outside of the classroom. I feel like if I order in Spanish at a Mexican restaurant, the waiters will think I’m trying to be like them when I’m so obviously different – when I don’t share any of their culture. I feel like I don’t have the right to speak their language to them. Partly because I’m not good enough at it – I can read and write pretty well in Spanish, but speaking and understanding spoken Spanish have always been difficult for me. But also because I don’t want the waiter to assume that I’ve assumed he doesn’t know English. While I wouldn’t mean to insult anyone, I feel like it might be perceived that way – like I’m trying to put him down, even when all I’m trying to do is make an effort to understand him in his native language, as he’s probably made an effort to understand me in mine.

I don’t have problems attempting to order in the native language when I’m in a foreign country. I’ve made several trips to Italy, and by now I’m pretty proficient at pronouncing things so that I don’t sound completely like an American tourist. Or at least, if I do sound like one, I don’t sound ignorant. I made a point of learning basic courtesy words – “thank you” and “excuse me” – in Italian. In an even more humorous situation, when on vacation in Great Britain I learned how to say similar phrases in English with a quasi-British accent. The point is to let people think, for at least the shortest of moments, that I’m not someone out of the ordinary – that perhaps I’m a part of a culture they understand.

And yet, within my own country, I don’t feel right addressing people in Spanish – not because I don’t think it’s appropriate, but because I’m afraid that native speakers won’t think it’s appropriate, or won’t understand the gesture in the way that I do. The reaction against immigration has, to a large extent, involved a vilification of Spanish and the belief that if immigrants want to live in our country, they should learn our language. I don’t believe this, but I’m afraid that the average Spanish-speaker I encounter has no way of knowing this about me. What I see as a gesture of courtesy, he may see as one of mocking.

Of course, there’s the chance that the waiter might understand. But there’s also the chance he might look at me and think, “typical American,” with a sneer – and that’s a chance I haven’t found myself willing to take.

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One Response to “Spanish outside of the classroom”

  1. katie_k on: 4 December 2007 at 10:38 am

    I have friends and family who have absolutely no problem just speaking Spanish in restaurants – and sometimes it comes off ok and sometimes the waiters do give them funny looks. Their intent is never to mock/insult others though, they just want to practice/use their Spanish language skills and I think that that attitude is apparent when they’re speaking. However, it’s never been a risk I was willing to take either!

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