Hablo espanglish

Note: I’m in Temuco this week with limited internet access, but I’m going to let WordPress auto-update my blog with a few posts I’ve been meaning to publish. If something gets screwed up, I’ll fix it when I’m back in Santiago.

The nice thing about living in a Spanish-speaking country is that I’m getting better at understanding and having basic interactions in Spanish pretty much every day. The annoying thing about living in a Spanish-speaking country is that I sort of can’t speak English properly anymore.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration — I can still make myself understood in English way better than I can in Spanish. But when I do speak English, occasionally my brain will supply Spanish words for what I’m trying to say instead of the English word I was going for.

Sometimes it’s a matter of convenience: When talking about money, I’ve noticed I say things like “Those shirts over there cost three mil” (three thousand/tres mil), because mil has one fewer syllable than thousand, so why not abbreviate? (Also, 500 Chilean pesos = $1 US, so 3,000 = $6 = actually not a bad price for a cute shirt.)

Other times it’s a matter of similarity: I was trying to tell one of my program-mates about Arizona’s latest piece of absolutely terrible legislation, and started out “Also, there’s that new ley in Arizona,” because ley and law are really very similar words. At the time my program-mate laughed at me… but then she did something very similar a few days later, so I got my own back.

But now that we’ve all been here over a month, it’s affecting all of us, and we’ve sort of just decided to let it. It’s no longer weird to hear someone start a lunchtime anecdote in English and end up in Spanish halfway through. If someone from my program says something to me in one language, I might respond in that same language… or I might respond in the other language if I feel like it, or in some sort of mixed-up combination. It doesn’t really matter; they’ll understand me either way.

It’s also sort of a sign that we’re getting better at Spanish: people often think that intra-sentence code-switching (going back and forth between languages within one sentence) is a sign that the speaker doesn’t know very much of one language, but linguistically it’s actually a sign that they’re very competent in both. To switch back and forth between languages without totally mangling the grammar of either one, you have to be pretty well versed in how each language puts their sentences together… and while I we tend to mangle a lot of grammar in our inadvertent code-switching, we’re getting better at figuring out our syntax and conjugations. So our conversations in Spanglish have lots of upsides: it’s an effective form of communication, it shows we’re actually pretty good at both languages, and it lets me geek out about bilingualism and linguistic principles at least a few times a week. Totally win-win!

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