NBC News (Op-Ed)
By Diana Limongi
June 23, 2015
Speaking Spanish and "proper" English are not mutually exclusive.
A few weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with someone at an airport. After a couple of hours of chatting, my phone rang and it was my father. I have always spoken to my dad in Spanish, so I switched and spoke away in fast Spanish. When I hung up, the person was in awe and said to me "Is Spanish your first language? I would've never guessed... You don't have an accent at all when you speak."
Really? Many people think these two actions (speaking Spanish and English without an accent) are mutually exclusive. These conversations happen daily; so many people have stories like these. Gemarla Babilonia-Gaskin, a Puerto Rican blogger living in Long Island, New York, says people are amazed when she speaks Spanish. They say, "OMG you have no accent!" coupled by "the look" - people looking at her quizzically, not quite "getting" who she is.
These experiences, along with so many other anecdotes friends have shared with me, made me realize there are many misconceptions about Hispanics and language. Not all Latinos have accents and not all Hispanics are bilingual. Our community is not homogeneous.
"I CAN'T HELP BUT WONDER WHAT ASSUMPTIONS ARE MADE ABOUT ME BECAUSE I SPEAK SPANISH."
There are millions of people who are fully bilingual, educated, US citizens and speak flawless English. There are also millions of people who are U.S. citizens and whose first language is Spanish, since it's the prevalent language in Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. commonwealth.
I can't help but wonder what assumptions are made about me because I speak Spanish. Did the woman at the airport wonder if I was documented, or if I had gone to college? I wish we could have spoken further so I could have told her that yes, I went to college, and as a matter of fact I will soon have two graduate degrees. I would have also explained to her that I also speak French, and that I'm raising my son to be multilingual.
In fact, I wonder, if she had heard me speaking in French, would she have asked the same question, "Is French your first language? I would've never guessed?" I wonder if that assumption only occurs with Spanish speakers.
So let's talk about accents. Why are some accents, like French, considered better, connoting more education or even sexiness, while others are considered less desirable? Even more importantly, since when is it bad to have an accent? Last time I checked having an accent in another language meant that you actually took the time to go to another place and learn another language. This shows courage, strength and determination to get ahead in a place that is foreign to you. So there should be no shame in an accent.
When does a person develop an accent when learning another language? There is actually no consensus among the linguistic community, according to linguist and researcher Francois Grosjean. While some have proposed that you can have an "accentless" second language if you learn it before age 6 and some have extended it to the age of 12, "I have met bilinguals who acquired their second or third language even later who do not have an accent in it," stated Grosjean.
Luckily, today, speaking more than one language is seen as a plus. Dual language programs are popular and adults who may not speak Spanish are going back to school to learn their heritage language, even if it means speaking with an accent.
Accents are also not static. One's accent changes depending on the situation, the people you are speaking to and the place. I know that my Spanish changes depending on who I am speaking to and where I am. Somehow, the Spanish that comes out of my mouth in Mexico does not sound the same as the one that comes out of my mouth when I speak to my parents, or when I am talking to another Latina.
Just to put it in context, a majority of Hispanics (65 percent) in the US are born here and the majority of us are bilingual, 59 percent to be exact, according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, there are Latinos whose families have been here for generations and they don't speak any Spanish, yet they are still Latino.
That is exactly Melanie Mendez-Gonzales' case. The blogger behind Qué Means What is a Texas native and her first language is not Spanish; she learned it later on as an adult. When she speaks it, she feels very self-conscious doing so. "I have a Texan accent and it really is noticeable when I speak Spanish," Melanie says. Sometimes, she gets corrected for her misuse of words. She finds herself explaining that she is Latina even though she speaks Spanish with an accent. So among U.S. Hispanics, you have it all - from mostly Spanish or mostly English speakers to fully bilingual.
I hope that as our country becomes increasingly diverse, we don't make assumptions about a person's educational attainment, background or immigration status based on how a person speaks English or another language. People with accents have been part of the American mosaic since its inception. The diversity, hard work and strength of many immigrant people is what has made America the place it is today.
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