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Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Spanish Language on “Defense!”



Why are so many Spanish speakers in the U.S. so defensive with those trying to learn to speak Spanish?

Melissa, a good friend of mine of Honduran, Central American ancestry got annoyed with me one evening when we stopped to get some refreshments on our way back from a salsa music event. The store clerk started speaking Spanish to his co-worker, and rather than my interrupting his flow, I joined in continuing to place my order in Spanish. Melissa, herself a fluent Spanish speaker,  expressed a distaste that reminded me of my childhood.

When I started learning Spanish on my own, at the age of 10; influenced by my Puerto Rican neighbors in a community near New York's Spanish Harlem, I noticed an inexplicable air of defensiveness among native Spanish speakers. They appeared highly territorial about their language seeming to have issues with non-native speakers, like myself, who sincerely want to learn. 

Perhaps, had I grown up near Miami's Little Havana where Cuban people are dead-in-your-face “proud” of the Spanish language, and where they seem to have a passionate preference for communicating in Spanish than English; even with non-native speakers, the progress I would have made in learning Spanish would have been much more rapid, fluid, and solid.

My final straw occurred when I approached a Spanish-speaking school mate, a fifth grader, in the playground and asked, ¿Hola, habla Español (hi, you speak Spanish)? He looked like he was ready to fight, and with a heavy New York accent, snapped back in plain English, what do YOU want to know for?

That harsh reaction burst my bubble prompting me to forget about learning Spanish and find other fun things to do with my childhood, and I certainly did! I felt like, geez, what is the use? All the Spanish-speakers I knew spoke very good English; perhaps, even better than their Spanish.

It was well into my adulthood motivated by my undying love for salsa and Afro-Cuban music coupled with the flooding of monolingual Spanish-speaking immigrants into this country when my desire to learn to speak Spanish resurfaced with an irresistable vengeance. 

This time, I avoided bilingual English/Spanish speakers making much greater progress among those who speak Spanish only. As a result of my efforts, I eventually landed jobs where the ability to speak Spanish was a plus. In one position, I even received bilingual pay.

It finally dawned on me that if I really wanted to develop my Spanish, I needed to travel to countries where only Spanish is spoken. To date, I've visited nine (9) countries socializing, and reaching out to black communities whenever possible. I even went out on dates, got invited to parties, got stopped and hassled by the police. And no one, and I mean absolutely no one, was able to speak a word of English. Thus, my Spanish inadvertently improved.

Finally, the time came when I got a taste of my own medicine with the Spanish language. I realized from my travels how a lot of Spanish-speakers in the US feel when I, as a native English speaker, approach them in Spanish, especially total strangers.

In Havana, Cuba, I was riding my bicycle with a group of Americans who were attending the University of Havana for Spanish-language intensive training. An Afro-Cuban gentleman rode up beside me and struck up a conversation in English. I thought to myself; damn, this fool thinks I'm one of those gringos who can't speak Spanish. I'm going to teach his young ass a lesson. For everything he said to me in English, I responded in Spanish like Spanish speakers in the U.S. have always done to me.

Finally, the gentleman snapped at me in frustration, “STOP ANSWERING ME IN SPANISH, I'M TRYING TO PRACTICE MY ENGLISH! From that point on, I felt compassion because this is exactly what I was trying to do when I spoke Spanish to Latinos in the U.S., practice my Spanish.

A lighter incident happened in Lima, Perú when in a restaurant, a gentleman struck up a conversation with me in English, and instinctively, I answered him in Spanish. He politely asked me if it is OK that he practices his English with me. Once again, my heartfelt compassion kicked in and I complied even though my primary reason for being in Perú and other Latin-American countries was to develop my Spanish-speaking skills.

I wish more Spanish speakers in the U.S. were as compassionate towards non-native speakers trying to learn their language as I was with those trying to learn mine. This is how communities build bridges—crossing cultures. I know enough Russian, French, Portuguese, and several other languages to meet and greet, and people who speak those languages graciously applaud my efforts. What is the big hangup among so many U.S. Spanish speakers?