Speaking Spanglish

So What if I Sound Funny in Two Languages?

Constantino Diaz-Duran is a fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. He is chronicling his walk from New York to Los Angeles to celebrate his eligibility for American citizenship. Follow Constantino’s progress.

I can’t roll my R’s. I’m a native Spanish speaker who can’t roll his R’s. Never been able to do it. That, combined with the fact that my life is now lived almost entirely in English, means my Spanish no longer sounds native. A few weeks ago a Texan told me that his Spanish is better than mine. At first I said to myself, “This schmuck has some gall.” But then I thought about it, and you know what? Maybe he’s right. Maybe my Spanish is now Spanglish. And if it is, I’ll own it.

Last year, when I was in Philly, I was interviewed by a reporter with the local Spanish-language newspaper. Writing about my move to the U.S. 11 years ago, the reporter wrote:

The break with Guatemala was almost complete, and irreparable. That is what you can deduce from Constantino’s Spanish. His Castilian R sounds Americanized, completely shelved, as if he refused to relive a language in which he wasn’t understood.

I laughed when I read that. Then I emailed the reporter to let him know that my relationship with the Spanish language is not as fraught with drama as he seemed to think. I’d be lying, however, if I said it hasn’t made me think about my use of language, and especially, what language I’ll speak with my children when they’re born. I want them to be bilingual at least, and will encourage them to learn more languages. But will we speak Spanish at home? I honestly don’t think so.

I’ll probably be judged by many who will accuse me of losing my roots, or who will think I’m a bad parent for not passing the language on to my kids. I used to shake my head at immigrant parents who didn’t use their native language when talking to their American-born children. “They’re denying them a great opportunity,” I used to think. But what I’ve come to realize is that the most important purpose of language is communication. And when it comes to family, efficient communication is paramount.

The reason why most second-generation Americans speak English with their parents is because they find it easier. A lot of my fellow first-generation immigrants feel guilty about this, and think they should be stricter about forcing their children to speak the old country’s language, but really, they shouldn’t. At home you must speak in whatever language facilitates open and deep conversation. If that language happens to be English, then so be it, and if it ends up being a hybrid, no hay problema.

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Languages evolve. That is the beauty of them. They must adapt to culture, and time. They must serve the people who speak them, not the other way around. As a writer, I see language as my tool, not my master. And that is how everyone should approach it. Who cares what you sound like, as long as you’re able to respectfully and happily communicate with your fellow humans?

So I have a funny accent in English, and now I have a funny accent in Spanish. I sound like a native speaker in a grand total of zero languages. That’s fine. I sound like me in all of them. And when I become a father, I will do my best to encourage my children to just find themselves, be themselves, and sound like themselves.

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*Photo by Constantino Diaz-Duran.


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