Monday, January 05, 2009

It was one of those moments when I wished that I had a wig that looks nearly exactly like my natural hair.

Today I went into pick up my paycheck at the EFL school where I teach--though I'm taking a term off right now. I chatted with my coworkers and a few of my former students, and was reminded of a reoccurring conversation I've had with many students about English and it's relationship to immigrant and diverse ethnic communities. Most of my students live with host families in Oceanside, and some of those host families are bilingual--they speak Spanish, or Tagalog, for example, in addition to English. Beyond their host families, students quickly learn that there is a wide spectrum of English spoken in the United States: what they hear with their families and on the street (or in this case, in the mall, since one can't really be "on the street" or "in the street" here in San Diego county) is not necessarily the same thing that they'll hear in my class. Moreover, there are massive discrepancies even between textbooks and the way different teachers speak. This drives some of them crazy and makes them really, really angry. For other students, it becomes a chance for them to think about the continuums that exist in their own languages.

I think all the time about how Spanish as a language is practically mainstream here in San Diego county. There are obviously a lot of native Spanish speakers, but almost everyone here speaks some Spanish, and a huge percentage of place names or names for geographical features are Spanish, or English versions of Spanish, or Spanish versions of native American. There are taco shops on every other corner. White people order tamales for Christmas. At the same time, though, there's a neurotic denial of the extent to which all of this non-WASPy culture really is mainstream. I think San Diego identifies with both LA and Tijuana, but doesn't really know what to do about it, because it also identifies with Dallas and Atlanta.

A few months ago, I started incorporating an activity into my EFL classes called "Random Vocabulary." It's pretty simple. Every morning, students bring any words or phrases that they've heard, or think they've heard, to class, and we discuss them. This means that they bring in a lot of slang--the word "güero" is one that surfaces every few months. The slang tends to fall into some basic categories: surfer slang, Spanish words, Bay area hip hop slang, and general suburban or valley-girl slang.

I've been thinking about my own use of Englishes and languages other than English in my writing. I want to use Spanish, French, and Chinese because these are all languages I've spoken at various points in my life, though I'd never claim to be fluent in any of them. But I have a great deal of anxiety about it, being more or less white and more or less solidly middle class. (Isn't anxiety my default emotion?)

Almost no one will speak Spanish with me here, and those that do are almost always either new to town, wealthy, or else extremely marginal--the workers waiting for the bus who don't actually have enough money for the bus but who can usually count on getting a ride anyway. It's easier to find people to speak French with, but I confess I've never found a way of using French in my work without it feeling tonally pretentious, so I need to work harder on that. And Chinese, well, a lot of the sound play in my work is based on Chinese, pronunciation, although I don't know if anyone can tell except for me. I'd like to incorporate it visually, but, again, I haven't found a way of doing it that feels right :

当我是十五,我从墨西哥城搬到广州,中国,我在法国学校学习八个月. That feels really pretentious, and I don't even know if my grammar is correct.

I've been thinking, too, about a slightly tipsy conversation I had with Jasper Bernes at the New Years Eve party. He said "Viva Hamas!" and I said "why viva? Why not yay or power to or yalla or something like that?" I have complicated thoughts about Hamas--it's a terrorist organization, a government, and a social services organization. But my feelings about Hamas aside, there is, of course, no reason not to say "viva" anything, except that at midnight at a party in a beautiful house in the Berkeley Hills, our conversation struck me as rather hilarious.


kevin.thurston said...

here (in seoul) one thing that is amusing, and that i picked up on really quickly, is that the koreans would take about learning English like it was a monolith.

some of the personal ads in the english language newspaper here get specific, "Korean lady wants to have conversation with Briton. Please leave your number... I need to practice in Britain accent."

one of my friends is scottish, and i can't imagine what his children will come out of his class sounding like as most of the native english teachers don't know what the hell he is saying.

and, kind-of related to your wanting to speak spanish, i am learning korean (hangul) but most of the koreans i know want to practice their english with me. so i have made a bargain, for basic transactions, you can speak english, but i will speak korean.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

I remember when I was in China how hard it was to find people to practice Chinese with. In the beginning, I spoke more Chinese with my non-Chinese friends. Your bargain for basic transactions is a good one--you still get feedback on whether or not your friends understand you, but you're practicing, too.