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News Opinion Editorial

No comprende, senor [Commentary]

On a recent trip to San Antonio, Texas, I was struck by a realization: Spanish is no longer merely a foreign language; it has officially become a domestic one.

Ordering a coffee at Starbucks, having a drink with colleagues at a local restaurant, asking a stranger on the street for directions — all of these are scenarios that would have once, in the not-so-distant past, necessitated an unspoken adherence to a "speak in English" public standard. Yet, in certain parts of the country, even the most trivial day-to-day interpersonal exchanges are occurring first in Spanish and then — "Ay, perdón. ¿No comprende señor?" — in English if required.

Hailing from Maryland, where such levels of Spanish language pervasiveness have not (yet) been reached, perhaps it's an obvious observation to make. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating shift and one that would be foolish to ignore, considering how widespread this no-longer-a phenomenon is quickly becoming.

While it was once the newly arrived Hispanic person who felt the sting of needing to operate in a language that was not his or her first — fumbling through simple exchanges or perhaps avoiding certain situations all together — this caricature has now fallen to the bumbling monolingual "estadounidense" (American). Those who do not speak Spanish, the language now spoken by so many, are quickly becoming an antiquated (and in some ways ridiculed) minority.

Stop yourself from thinking that this must refer to a highly educated individual — the elite, well-traveled, degree-holding folks who can talk for hours about the writing nuances of Argentina's Borges or Chile's Neruda. In fact, it is the street cleaner, the waitress and the fast food cashier who possess these seemingly effortless multilingual skills — fields that now mandate proficiency in both languages and both cultures. While those skills are often taken for granted today by monolinguals, who expect others to provide the language bridge, they could one day help lift an entire class to a higher socio-economic bracket.

So, what could this mean? Do we have bilingual public education requirements looming in the future? Will big business marketing ventures turn their interest toward a demographic with different cultural needs and values than the former white majority? Will knowing English and only English become synonymous with unskillful, inexperienced and ignorant?

While answers will more than likely arrive sooner than naysayers expect, it is certain that a bilingual and bicultural nation is the obvious new normal. Being able to operate in both languages is quite literally required in certain communities such as San Antonio. The seamlessness with which linguistic fusion occurs there makes one feel as though they're witnessing the creation of a new breed of language and cultural hybridity that goes beyond simple Spanglish. It's a brilliant thing to watch an individual skillfully negotiate the Spanish language and associated cultural cues, then just as easily switch gears to do the same with English, speaking the estadounidense counterpart.

The slang, the choice of which words are left in their English form and which are transformed or translated entirely, the influence of regional differences (most strongly from Mexico and Central America) suggest American and Latino cultures have gone beyond merely mingling; they're procreating.

Which words are preserved or altered also give clues to which distinct personal and national values are being retained how, which are reshaped and which are discarded in the transition to life in the U.S. This may help us to better predict who we are inevitably becoming as a nation, one with a distinct Hispanic finesse.

So, ¿te interesa el español? You may soon not have the choice as our definitions of how we communicate, and more importantly how we identify with and define one another, continue to evolve into a new bilingual and bicultural normal.

Kaitlin Thomas is an Adjunct Professor of Spanish at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. and the Hispanic Migrant Coordinator for the Maryland Migrant Education Program. Her email is kthomas2@washcoll.edu.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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