Multilingualism is like los manglares de Ecuador.

The mangrove forests are found in tropical places all around the world. One of the places they are found is in and around the surrounding areas of Guayaquil, Ecuador. According to World Wildlife:

“The world’s mangrove forests have been described as one of the most distinctive emersed tropical ecological systems on the planet (Fundación Natura 1995). The mangrove forests located in the province of Manabí (Ecuador) are small regions of coastal forest that shelter great biodiversity and play important ecological roles. Nonetheless, these ecosystems have suffered serious habitat changes and are critically endangered.”

When I first saw los manglares I was taken aback by their physical characteristics because unlike most trees the manglares (or mangroves), typically found in swamps, have their roots above ground. The roots form a dense network and to the naked eye it can look like there is no beginning and no end. If you try and follow where one root goes it will be impossible to see where it ends. Instead what you will see is one root after another kind of like a spider web. What I found fascinating about the manglares is that if you were to fly over them they appear to be traditional trees. From a birds eye perspective all you would see are the leaves and below would be what you imagine a “typical” tree look like. We lived across the street from a mangrove for a year and a half in Guayaquil’s prominent peninsula, Samborondon. During that year and a half I was writing my dissertation (still am!) and thinking about the way people use language. I would think about my dissertation (all the time) while cooking dinner, while bathing my daughters, at the park, in the shower, and at our weekly visit to El Parque Historico in Samborondon. The park had various attractions. It had a bridge that led visitors across the park to see tropical birds, spider monkeys, alligators, and even a children’s park. Along the way we would be constantly in conversation with one another about the animals, commenting on their behavior (or lack thereof). Many times the trail would be crowded with visitors depending on the day of the week. My favorite part was towards the end where the manglares were because just before that last section visitors had the option of exiting the trail. Many visitors chose to exit the trail because the section where the mangroves are located did not include animals to observe and comment on, there were simply trees. I loved that part of our walk because it was quiet. The mangroves offered a simple form of serenity. Each time I went by that section I admired the ways their roots intertwined for what seemed like forever. It was peaceful. And it was in that part of the trail where even for a brief moment I would think about my dissertation. It was where the manglares were located that I had an epiphany about bilingualism. It occurred to me that the mangroves or manglares are an ideal picture of how language works. On the outside languages can all look the same, in terms of structure and use, some may even say that most languages share the same roots (and many do!). For years researchers have been talking about language use in school settings in a binary fashion. As in students and teachers should use one language at a time, BUT in reality the ways bilinguals (students and teachers alike) use language is similar to the way los manglares de Ecuador interact with nature and quite frankly survive. Our linguistic resources are always in contact with one another. There is no beginning and there is no end with the way we use two or more languages. And what is more fascinating (to me!) is that this kind of dynamic bilingualism is only found in certain parts of the world. Like the mangroves, the climate, or context, in which individuals constantly draw from various linguistic resources simultaneously depends on (language) contact with other natural resources. For the mangroves this includes a swamp, for bilingualism it includes language contact. This analogy is a work in progress…..

Translating the sense of “orderliness” in another country….

After several months of living in Guayaquil, specifically Samborondon, I have finally reached a point where I can see their sense of orderliness. It happened when I was driving down, like I do everyday, the infamous peninsula strip in Samborondon. Driving in this upper-class suburb is nothing compared to the intensity and vibration Guayaquil, the nation’s largest city, across the bridge from Samborondon offers, but, still…this is MY reality. As I was saying, I was driving back from dropping off my daughter at school and I started to see how traffic really does flow. Yea, I can “cut” people off here, honk to communicate more frequently than in the U.S., and it’s, for the most part, okay. I started to see the role traffic cops play in keeping the street moving (some would argue otherwise), how pedestrians knew when to cross the street despite the lack of a cross walk, and how everything and everyone, including myself, seemed to flow in sync. It was a pivotal point in my time here because it meant that I had assimilated or gotten used to how things work here. In fact, the first time I drove here I remember spitting out every single cuss word I knew (in English and Spanish!) and feeling a sense of bewilderment when I analyzed how in the world I was going to get through the crazy traffic congestion that presented itself in front me. All in all, if I could offer any advice to future or current drivers in Guayaquil, I would say, “Worry about what lies ahead and let those behind you figure out the rest.”

Bilingualism in Ecuador

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!”