Category Archives: Bilingual Experiences

Language use, accents, and stereotypes.

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In Anjelah Johnson’s “Nail Salon” comedy act, which aired on the Comedy Time network in 2007, there is a deliberate use of marked language or speech markers by a speaker from outside the group in question. In fact, mocking speakers from outside her ethnic and racial group is a common theme in many of her acts. In the act, “Nail Salon” she is, in my opinion, attracting anyone that has ever frequented a nail salon where the majority of the employees were Asian. The sociolinguistic variables this paper will focus on include: the stereotypes towards Asian speech, attitudes towards code switching, and how speakers of speech communities manage their languages in socially meaningful ways.
Johnson demonstrates a common stereotype towards Asian speech, specifically Vietnamese female manicurist speech. Having grown up in Southern California, where a large Vietnamese community resides, and also where Johnson is from; I could completely relate to her comedy act. According to Ronald Wardhaugh, “To say of a member of such a group that he or she will always exhibit a certain characteristic behavior is to offer a stereotype (p.120).” Johnson reinforces the female Asian manicurist stereotype through her use of speech markers, which include, “…social categories of sex, ethnicity, social class, and situation [which are] clearly marked on the basis of speech (p.121).” Whether or not the video attracts or repels members of targeted group, Vietnamese female manicurists or people of Vietnamese origin, is questionable. According to YouTube’s statistical information about who is viewing this specific video it is evident that the group most attracted to Johnson’s act are women between the ages of 13-54 years old.
By deliberately using the speech of a working class, Vietnamese female, in the particular context of a nail salon and as a speaker from outside the group in question Johnson is sending several messages about attitudes towards Asians in general. In particular, she is sending a message about the way Asian speakers code-switch and the attitudes associated with it when it occurs in a nail salon. Wardhaugh describes code switching as having two distinct purposes: situational and metaphorical. “Situational code-switching occurs when the languages used change according to the situations in which the conversants find themselves; they speak one language in one situation and another in a different one (p.104).”
In the case of the “Nail Salon” comedy act, Johnson exemplifies the use of metaphorical code switching. According to Wardhaugh metaphorical code-switching occurs as, “…a change of topic [which] requires a change in the language used…it has an affective dimension to it: you change the code as you redefine the situation- formal to informal, official to personal, serious to humorous, and politeness to solidarity…to show how speakers employ particular languages to convey information that goes beyond their actual words, especially to define social situations (p.104).” The particular instance where Johnson demonstrates metaphorically code-switching is when she criticizes the manicurists’ work on one of her nails. The manicurist, after some debate as to whether or not Johnson’s nail was actually flawed, decides to fix the nail, and instantly begins to code-switch with another employee. It is implied that Johnson is left wondering what Tammy, the manicurist, could possibly be saying to her fellow employee. In the middle of speaking Vietnamese, almost to cover up what was really being said, Tammy says in her heavily accented English that her fellow manicurist thinks Johnson is pretty. She was, according to Wardhaugh’s definition of metaphorical code switching, using Vietnamese and English “…to convey information that goes beyond her actual words (p.104).” In other words, Johnson does a great job of showing us how quickly the manicurist went from being “all about customer service” to extremely annoyed when Johnson critiques her work and doesn’t, for the first time in the act, give in to the manicurists requests or suggestions. This leads to the final sociolinguistic variable: how speakers of speech communities manage their languages in socially meaningful ways.
Earlier I mentioned the use of speech markers as a variable. According to Wardhaugh’s description of speech communities it is, “…through speech markers [as] functionally important social categorizations [that can be] discriminated…For humans, speech markers have clear parallels…it is evident that [these] social categories of…sex, ethnicity, social class, and situation can be clearly marked on the basis of speech… (p.121).” In the comedy act, “Nail Salon” the “female Vietnamese manicurist” is obviously from a certain social class: she is an immigrant serving American standard English-speaking individuals.
The last variable, how speakers of speech communities manage their languages in socially meaningful ways, is in my opinion a mode of survival for the manicurist. At the beginning of the act Johnson mentions how the women at the salon are all about customer service. In fact, Johnson demonstrates how good they are at getting you to purchase more services repeatedly throughout the act. The manicurist has learned how to use language in socially meaningful ways. She is constantly complimenting the customer and acting very interested in her life, which is important because Asians are known to be very modest people who don’t like to bring attentions to themselves or others, but in this act Johnson demonstrates how the Asian manicurist has learned that Americans favor an individualistic perspective and the manicurist taps into that knowledge in order to get Johnson to buy more services. In other words, there is more than one stereotype being displayed.
As a Mexican-American and Native American comedian Anjelah Johnson falls under the category of being a speaker from outside the Vietnamese community. It is interesting to note whether or not the targeted group would actually repel or be attracted to Johnson’s comedy act of “Nail Salon.” After reviewing comments the video received on YouTube I could only identify one that may have been from an Asian person given his/her name, SgtTsuki’s. He/she stated, “Gahh!! It’s so wrong to laugh and feel offended at the same time!!” I am still left wondering if people who belong to the Asian community would feel offended. Maybe some members would, such as those who speak with an Asian accent, but others who are American-born and do not speak with an Asian accent may not.

Written in 2010—in rough draft form, but worth the share.

 

My Toddler’s Bilingual Development

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I have been recording (mostly on Facebook) my daughters’ bilingual development. The following conversation took place when she was 1 year and 11 months old.

Me: Sabrina, ven a comer los frijoles.
Sabrina: No, jole!
Me: Ven aquí.
Sabrina: No ven
Me: Si
Sabrina No, si!

As you can see  her words are “fragmented” and she echoed what I was saying, yet all in Spanish. It has been an amazing journey that not a single person could have described to me prior to deciding to raise my daughter with 2 (at least) languages. I have seen her change from a predominately Spanish speaker at 2 and a 1/2 years old to having a strong command of English within 6 months of being immersed in an English daycare. Today, at 4 years old, it can be difficult to tell which of the 2 languages she speaks “better.” Just the other day the following conversation took place between her and a new friend:

New Friend: Sabrina, por que hablas ingles?
Sabrina: En Austin hablamos espaniol y in Ecuador we speak English!
Me: That’s right, honey. You are bilingual and your friend is becoming bilingual just like you!

In fact, one could argue, based on that single sentence she uttered above, that she has a strong command of both languages because she managed to code-switch while maintaining the grammatical structure of both languages!

When it comes to raising a bilingual child it seems like, as I have said before, there are many trials, joys, and tribulations. Having moved to Ecuador recently we switched to speaking English with Sabrina for the first time in her life! She refused to speak to us in English for about 2 months UNTIL she came home from her first day at a Spanish school. The teachers and classmates were so impressed with her American English that she, what I assume, felt proud. Since that day she speaks mostly in English to us. It was a complete shock to me to see how drastically she switched all due to what her peers thought. Now, as I mentioned, my biggest concern is asking her to switch back to Spanish IF we ever decide to move back to the U.S.

Have your children successfully switched back to the original language you had spoken after moving back to a country of origin?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bilingualism in Ecuador

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Bilingualism is highly valued in Ecuador. There is no doubt about that. That being said, I have been trying to understand how Spanish and English work here.  All of the private schools I have visited promote becoming bilingual. The public schools, from what I have heard, also promote bilingualism, but at a completely different level. Here’s the interesting observation I have made. Rarely, if ever, do I hear locals speaking English. In fact, I sense a level of discomfort interacting in English. It’s as if English is a tool with a certain purpose. The purpose being several ones: travel, business, or to speak with someone from another country.

There is something about Spanish and English that definitely stands out. People here code-switch or it could be a form of language mixing (which I can explain in another post). For example, I was speaking to another parent about sleep training her children when she said, “No fue facil. Tenia los dos mellizas durmiendo en el mismo cuarto o como dicen los gringos, ‘it wasn’t a piece of cake.”

There is English everywhere we go. You will see it as the name of business, like Sweet & Coffee. Though I think it should read: Sweets & Coffee. Which leads me to my next observation. Sometimes the translations are off like a store in the mall advertising: joyas de boda. In English they wrote, marge jewelry. Huge mistake.

All in all, our experience as a bilingual family in Ecuador has been amazing. I look forward to sharing more about those experiences in future posts as well. Our daughter has certainly improved how to associate people with language. She switches between Spanish and English almost flawlessly. I think we are on track in raising a prolific code switcher and someone who is proud to know more than one language. Just the other day she said, “En Austin hablamos espaniol y in Ecuador we speak English!”

How to choose the best foreign language school for your child.

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Has this crossed your mind? Are you in the process of trying to find a foreign language school for your child? This topic is one I have been thinking a lot about for several years. As a former teacher I often times sought out the ideal settings to teach Spanish or English in and what I have come to realize are many things that make a great way to learn another language. I am in the process of drafting an e-book about the characteristics that make a foreign language school/experience the best for YOUR child. In other words, just like many parents spend time and money scoping out schools, in general, the parent who has learning a second or third language a priority for their child also has special interests and important decisions to consider and make.

In my opinion, there are so many things to consider, but the problem the parent who has learning another language as top priority also has the added challenge of being limited by the number of schools to choose from in any city they may live in. It is, unfortunately, a situation very common in the US.

I am writing this post to get an idea about the specific interests parents have when looking into foreign language schools in their community. I’d like to offer my unique perspective, not only as a parent who shares the same interest in finding the perfect foreign language school, but as a doctoral student who knows about some of the most optimal methodologies to teach/learn another language.

Please share some of your specific interests/concerns when looking into foreign language schools.

Speaking Spanish brings out the best in people…

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The older Sabrina gets the more Spanish I speak. The more she learns to interact, the more I use Spanish—-sounds normal, right? Well the scenarios I am about to describe in the paragraphs below are beyond normal. Let me preface the stories with, when Sabrina was first born I was having a hard time (for many new-mommy reasons) making the effort to communicate with her in Spanish. Now, thankfully, it seems to fill our days and routines, although never did I imagine I would encounter scenarios like the ones I am about to share.

What I am starting to realize is that other people are noticing, more and more, that we are not speaking the dominant language–English. Speaking in Spanish to my baby girl is bringing out the best in strangers. Let me give you a glimpse…

The other day we were grocery shopping at a pretty popular market. It’s the kind of market that serves gourmet, chef-prepared foods—such a delight. We were actually walking passed the chef-prepared food aisle–I like to admire the food and dream about buying it guilt-free. At any rate, this man noticed that I was speaking to Sabrina in Spanish—I think I was saying something like, “No, Sabrina. No toques eso. No es juguete mi amor.” She was reaching for an odd shaped box with some sort of specialty bread in it. This was happening while I was also admiring the food when an older man turns to me, holding chef-prepared green salsa enchiladas in his hand, he looks at me with a sincere smile, and says, “This looks like something you may like.” WOW. I was shocked. I wasn’t offended because he was so sweet about it, in a way. Now, I may be totally off here, in that he may have uttered the same sentence had I been speaking in English. The thing is—me speaking in Spanish and strangers making comments about it, either directly or indirectly, is starting to become a pattern. Some of the readers may even blame it on the fact that I live in Texas, a predominately conservative state. Here’s the thing. I have experienced instances like these when I lived in a “liberal” state, too. I grew up in Orange County, CA and experienced similar stereotyped comments growing up all the time–at least it seemed like it was all the time. Can you believe that I was I was once asked (when I lived in a predominately white city in SoCal) where it was that I tanned!

So, the second scenario where me speaking Spanish has brought out the best in someone happened about a month ago. This one left me feeling shocked, yet a little hurt as well. I was in another grocery store. This one is just a traditional market. My abuelita was with me and I was speaking in Spanish with her, my daughter, and subsequently with the lady behind me in line. I can’t remember what my abuelita and I were talking about, probably about the food we had just bought. She wanted to make arroz mexicana. I had purchased some wine and the cashier starts motioning to me as if she were driving and saying “drivers license, drivers license.” I realized quickly that she didn’t know I could speak English as well which is totally fine. It’s her second comment that really upset me and I probably should have called her out on it right away. She, then, said to me (as I was taking out my drivers license and continuing to talk with my abuelita), “English, please. English!” I was, again, shocked. Interestingly, right at that same moment the lady behind (who knew English and Spanish) said, “Que linda es su bebita. Cuantos meses tiene?” In fact, now that I think about it I think she asked me that to, in her own way, tell the cashier that we can speak whatever it is we want. We weren’t even speaking to the cashier! The cashier, once again, said, “English, please. ENGLISH.” I proceeded to swipe my credit card on the machine, looked her in the eye and said (because she still thought I only knew Spanish), “Actually I can speak in either one, English or Spanish. I can speak both.”

What are some experiences you have had speaking a minority language in a majority-language context?

Crib Bilingual vs. School Bilingual

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There are various routes one can take to become bilingual. Since I have made an effort to raise my daughter with at least 2 languages I have learned mine is just one way, and really, there are multiple ways to becoming bilingual. I consider myself a “crib bilingual” in that my parents native language is Spanish. Spanish filled our home, our lives effortlessly. I, on the other hand, find myself stumbling over some Spanish words when speaking with my daughter. Like the other day, I realized that I did not know the words for earlobe or nostril!

As I mentioned earlier, there are various avenues one can take to becoming bilinugual. The difference, though, is to what extent will my daughter be able to speak Spanish in various contexts. This is where I like to think that though she is a crib bilingual, she will also become (which I did not have the opportunity to do) a school bilingual. She will have experienced both Spanish and English  day in, and day out. She will be considered a simultaneous bilingual. That being said, no matter which route you happen to be one, I think individuals that speak more than one language (despite the level of “proficiency”) also develop two language systems…that my friends a whole other realm of language acquisition!

Motherhood, what it has come to mean to me.

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Each day that passes adds to what motherhood has come to mean to me. If you are a mother, you probably have an idea what I mean. There are small moments and larger ones that mark how I have and continue to evolve as mami. When I gave birth 16 + months ago I thought, “Wow, I am a mom.” Although that is true, little did I know that, for me, becoming mami would evolve over the course of probably a life time. I have learned that my role as Sabrina’s mother will continue to change, sure some parts of my identity as a mother will remain the same, but in the end she will need be to be different for each phase of her life.

What I love about motherhood is that there is an instant community of women who are there to offer advice, to help you co-mother, and to guide you along the way. Oddly enough, I have also learned that this instant community can also be…hmm…somewhat of a nuisance. Being a mother can make you hold firm that the way YOU are raising your baby must be a really good way, some would say the best way to raise children. That being said, what motherhood has come to mean to me, as I have been guilty in viewing my own child rearing practice as a really good idea, is that we all do what is best for OUR children.

In addition, there are certain behaviors that my daughter displays that I may tolerate, but had she been someone else’s daughter, they may not have been tolerated the same way. In other words, I think this idea of tolerating certain behaviors and not others, plays into how parents decide to raise their children. I’ll end this post with, we all have, more or less, different child rearing practices, different ways of being mami. There isn’t a better way, there are only different ways of being mami.