A Spanish-English two-step
If you’re a native English speaker in Southern California, you may feel bombarded with Spanish every day. You see it all around you, on billboards and bumper stickers, and hear it on the radio and in restaurants.
Some of you have written to me to say that you feel disoriented by all this Spanish chatter. Like the man from Bakersfield who was upset because he had uncovered the meaning of a word he kept hearing certain people of Mexican descent say around him.
The word was “gabacho,” a mild pejorative that translates, more or less, as “white person.”
But rest assured, all you native speakers of English. As confused as you may sometimes be in this crazy, polyglot metropolis, your average native speaker of Spanish is confused a lot more.
This truth hit me during a visit last week to the East Los Angeles Civic Center, which is arguably the epicenter of Spanish-speaking Southern California.
Much of the signage at the Civic Center’s park and lake is in only one language. If you don’t read English, you won’t know there’s a three-hour limit in the parking lot, for instance, or that the park closes at sunset.
And there’s this sign that carries a weird double meaning that’s obvious to almost anyone who grew up speaking English, but may be imperceptible to many native Spanish speakers:
I pointed out the sign to Elias Dominguez, a 73-year-old immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico, who was pushing his granddaughter around the lake in a stroller and talking to her in Spanish.
“Senor,” I called out to him in Spanish. “Isn’t this sign kind of funny? Doesn’t it say something kind of feo [ugly]?”
“Well, it’s because the kids are throwing sticks and rocks at the ducks,” he answered in Spanish, apparently unaware of what I was getting at.
To a native Spanish speaker the English verb “molest” is what linguists call a “false friend.” It sounds a lot like the Spanish verb molestar, but doesn’t mean exactly the same thing.
Molestar means “to bother,” but it doesn’t have the other, more commonly used meaning of “molest” that’s in my American Heritage Dictionary -- “to subject to unwanted or improper sexual activity.”
So a native Spanish speaker learning English might say: “Your cigarette is molesting me.” And at that park in East Los Angeles, many are unaware that the sign could be read as an admonition not to touch the ducks in their private parts.
After a back-and-forth lasting about 30 seconds, Dominguez saw the sign’s unintended meaning. “Si, como ‘child molester,’ ” he said.
A language is a big and complicated thing. Learning a second one is a lifelong journey that never quite seems complete. Dominguez told me he arrived from Mexico in 1959, has been to night school to study English several times, and reads the newspaper and watches news broadcasts in English.
He’s also raised seven kids in the United States who’ve earned graduate degrees from American universities. But when I asked him in Spanish, “When did you begin to master English,” he answered frankly: “No lo he dominado.” (“I haven’t mastered it.”)
When his kids were growing up, he spoke Spanish to them so they would be bilingual. Spanish was the dominant language at his work too, and it remains the tongue that will always feel more comfortable to him.
“All of our lives we were surrounded by the language of Shakespeare, but we also worked in factories with lots of Latino people,” he said.
There’s a routine by the comedian George Lopez that pokes fun at the presence of so many Spanish speakers in working-class Los Angeles -- and at the linguistic confusions that are part of everyday life here.
“All the fast food restaurants?” Lopez begins. Latinos work there, he says. “Every one. . . . You have to speak Spanish to get a hamburger!”
In the skit that follows, an English-speaking woman shows up at a Jack in the Box to order a burger. She’s confused by the attendant’s pronunciation of words like “yumbo yack” and “sheeze.”
A crazy Spanish-English dialogue ensues, and reaches a climax when the customer asks for a “fountain drink,” which completely confuses the attendant.
The attendant consults with his manager, who translates “fountain drink” for him. He then returns to the window and shouts back angrily at the customer: “Why don’t you say ‘soda,’ stupid?”
In the end, English remains the dominant tongue of Southern California. “In the long run, Spanish is really the threatened language here,” says Carmen Fought, a linguistics professor at Pitzer College.
The effect of Spanish speakers on the Southern California linguistic universe is heard mostly in new words and phrases constantly being added to the local English lexicon -- like “no mas” and “carne asada.”
In this sense, Spanish is merely adding a little flavor to American English, as German, Yiddish and other languages have before it. “Deja vu and reservoir come from French, but we don’t think of those words as hurting our language,” Fought says.
Latin American immigration’s biggest impact on English is in the spread of the use of an English dialect known as “Chicano English” that’s spoken by millions of Latinos across the United States.
Fought has spent years studying Chicano English and its distinctive rhythms and melodies. Most people in Southern California either speak Chicano English or know someone who does.
In Chicano English, words like “embarrassing” end with a long, “tense e” and a dropped g, as in the word “sheen.” The word “fool” can be a synonym for “guy.”
Still, the underlying structure of California English has not changed, Fought said. As long as people value and speak a language, it will endure, she said. And nearly every Latino immigrant resident of California understands that English is the language of achievement.
Dominguez said he’s thankful his children mastered it, though he’s very proud of their good Spanish too.
So think of Southern California as a ballroom where English and Spanish are two dancers with their arms wrapped around each other’s waists. The Spanish dancer has a lot of flair, and she’s trying to do a tango. But it’s the English dancer who has the lead, and in the end, you realize what they’re doing is a square dance.