The Power of Code-Switching
Shakespeare had a knack for demonstrating the power of language through his characters. Whether it was Richard III smooth talking his way into power, or Mark Antony persuading a giant Roman mob to turn against Cassius and Brutus, Shakespeare’s characters emphasize just how far linguistic abilities can take you.
My language acquisition experience in Barranquilla brings to mind one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, Henry IV. In this play, the character, Prince Hal, is an expert at switching between the language of the commoners (prose) and the language of the nobility (iambic pentameter). This wins him respect in both realms, and most importantly, allows him to fit in.
I, on the other hand, am not a prince, like Prince Hal, trying to “drink” with a commoner. Instead, I am a foreigner trying to drink with a Barranquillero, and I believe we expats, immersed in a new language, can learn a great deal from Hal, a linguistic genius that carefully considers how to communicate in any given context.
Another character in the play, Hotspur, doesn’t work too hard at learning new languages and dialects, “Tying [his] ear to no tongue but [his] own!” (1.3.8). This eventually gets him into trouble, and he loses favor because his linguistic abilities do not extend beyond his own lingo. Hostpur is linguistically talented, but only in his own language and dialect. He has trouble building a reputation in foreign lands and with those outside his own social group.
It seems like common sense: we need to have an ear for Spanish, if we are going to acculturate into a Spanish-speaking culture. Language competencies are empowering, and, unfortunately, language deficiencies are constraining. The expat has to eventually become a master at code switching, the ability to alternate between two or more languages or language varieties. In Barranquilla, not only are we required to switch between Spanish and English, but we are also obligated to understand and speak Costeñol. Simply put, Costeñol is Spanish mixed with colloquialisms from the Barranquilla coast. It’s legit! Check out the Costeñol dictionary.
My trials and tribulations with Spanish and Costeñol
Unfortunately, I’m neither Shakespeare nor Prince Hal. I’d say that I more accurately resemble Hotspur, but, nonetheless, I think my mediocre linguistic competencies have made the path to bilingualism a little more fun (or awkward?).
I knew I was in for a wild ride when, early in my first year, a friend that I had recently met texted me the message, “tengo rabia.” At that point, I only knew one way to translate that phrase: “I have rabies.” Shocked, bewildered, and frankly unsure of what to do or say, I texted her back in Spanish, “Como sabes?” “how do you know?” Sure it was a little insensitive, but what are you supposed to say when someone tells you she has rabies? I didn’t exactly know enough Spanish to sympathize with someone who had just told me she has contracted a fatal disease, but I also didn’t want to leave her hanging.
The following text then beeped on my phone: “Tengo mucha muchaaaaa rabiaaaaaa.” Great, now I had confirmed that not only does my only Colombian friend have rabies, but she also has A LOT of rabies. I was actually quite nervous, not knowing how to react, but I also didn’t want to ignore her. “Eso es horrible. Qué vas a hacer?” “That’s horrible. What are you going to do?” I replied. She kept repeating the same thing, that she had lots and lots of rabies, so I finally decided to make sure I was translating her messages correctly.
She kept repeating the same thing, that she had lots and lots of rabies, so I finally decided to make sure I was translating her messages correctly.
I did a quick Google search. Apparently, “tengo rabia” is also an idiomatic expression for “I am very angry,” “rabia” literally meaning “rage.” Knowing this I no longer thought my friend was dying of rabies, but if she had been, it had probably been too late to save her, since all she could do was hysterically repeat the phrase, “tengo mucha rabia!”
Buying shoelaces can also turn into quite the ordeal. I snapped a lace one morning as I was tying my tennies, and I needed a replacement before my daily jog. I decided to go down to the little tienda in my building to see if they sold extra shoelaces. Before I descended the stairs, I Google translated “shoelace.” Cordones, it said. Simple enough.
As I traveled down the four flights of stairs, the word apparently transformed in my short-term memory, like I was playing a one-man game of “Telephone.” When I got to the tienda, remembering the word as best I could, I asked, “tienen condones?” To my surprise, the 19-year-old store clerk pulled out a box of . . . not shoelaces . . . condoms! He then handed me one with a wry smirk.
Apparently, condones means “condoms.” I had simply switched the “r” in cordones to an “n,” drastically changing the meaning. I am sure my face turned bright red, and the store clerk started laughing uncomfortably when he realized that I did not, in fact, want any condoms. I guess it could have been worse — I could have asked for condoms and gotten shoelaces.
“If I have to learn how to tie my shoes with condoms, this is going to be a tough cultural transition,” I told the uncomprehending store clerk. Then I pointed to my shoe, and, realizing my honest mistake, the clerk pulled out an old shoelace from below the counter. “Gracias,” I said, and snatched the shoelace, walking quickly away, ignoring the cackles of the store clerk and his three other customers.
If I have to learn how to tie my shoes with condoms, this is going to be a tough cultural transition.
Another embarrassing moment came when I had to call a doctor to my apartment because I was sick with a stomach bug. After checking my vitals, the doctor said, “Boca abajo.” I knew that “boca” meant “mouth” and “abajo” meant “downwards,” so, proud of my Sherlock-ish linguistic deciphering, I opened my mouth wide. When the doctor finally pulled a needle out of his pouch and turned around, he looked baffled, then started chuckling.
“Qué?” I asked. Pointing to my mouth, I repeated, “boca abajo,” reminding him that I was just doing what he asked. Unfortunately, “boca abajo” actually means “face down,” (deceived by the literal translation!), and he actually was asking me to lie on my stomach so he could stab me in the backend with an antidiarrheal medicine.
Idiomatic expressions emerge when we least expect them. A command of Spanish is more than simply knowing the literal translations. Mastering language is more complex than that. It requires a knack for identifying connotations based on context.
I have gathered many similar embarrasing linguistic experiences during my four years in Barranquilla. Language is tricky. Not only do literal translations from one language to the next often fail, but certain cognates can have different colloquial meanings as well. Take the infinitive “to invite.” In the U.S., when we “invite” people somewhere, it usually means that we want them to accompany us or come visit us. In Colombian culture, and I believe many parts of Latin America, the infinitive, “invitar,” also implies that thee who invites, is thee who pays. Using a form of the verb “invitar” means that the inviter will definitely be paying for any and all expenses associated with the outing or event. I learned quickly that if you want someone to accompany you, but to also split the cost, you should ask them to “accompany” you, instead of “inviting” them along.
I strive to become the Prince Hal of Barranquilla or at least a Costeño disciple, but the road to becoming a Costeño is not a beaten path. It has been a long and treacherous personal journey. The following are samples of some of my personal lessons learned:
I have discovered that Guayabo is a hangover, but Guayaba is a fruit, whose juice cures said hangover.
I should have known that la perra is a female dog, a bitch, which would have been nice to know before I mispronounced the name of my student named Lapeira, and then wondered why all my 6th graders couldn’t stop snickering.
I also found that you mustn’t mispronounce the word “peine” (comb) because it wouldn’t be acceptable in any culture to comb your hair with a “pene” (penis). Ojo with the pronunciations!
Eche is slang, an interjection, like when I say, “Eche, tengo sueños grandes” announcing that I have big dreams or “Eche tengo senos grandes,” announcing that I have big boobs.
Often the Spanish words for stores that sell particular items are made by adding an ending like “ería.” For example, a store that sells “pan” (bread) is a “panadería.” But careful! “Chucha” is a vulgar word for a woman’s genitalia, but “chucherías” are small snacks or candies, (not stores that sell chuchas!).
Focus! Costeños might eat their S’s or smash words together, like saying “entonce” instead of “entonces” and “voy pa’llá” instead of “voy para allá!” If you use the same lingo, you fit quite nicely.
It’s also important to note that if you come across a student desk that says, “Mr. M is Mierda, you can compliment his use of alliteration, but assure him to edit his work because your name is technically not “Shit,” and, therefore, mierda is a common noun and should not be capitalized. You also might want to suggest that, to avoid cursing, the student use terms like “Miércoles” (Wednesday), like the euphemistic “fudge” to the English F-bomb.
Pupy also doesn’t mean “poopy,” even though it is pronounced as such. I have a hard time using pupy, a word that makes me think of excrement, but in Barranquilla is used to refer to something fine, luxurious, or preppy.
If your doorman keeps calling you “Monocuco,” he doesn’t mean you are goofy. Although the carnival Monocuco costume reminds me of a clown, to be Monocuco is a good thing. I would translate it as “stud,” or use it in the adjectival form, “studly.”
Finally, there’s the expression “nojoda,” exclaiming admiration or incredulity, like “nojoooooda, that’s a long line at the bank,” or “nojooooda you must have gone and sold your soul to the devil because you play the guitar really well!” “Joder” literally means “to annoy” or “to bother,” but can be much stronger, like “to F with.” So “nojoda” makes sense, right? Kind of? Hey, . . . this stuff is important — I am not jodeando around!
What would Prince Hal do?
Prince Hal would meet his match in Barranquilla. Costeñol is a complex, interesting, and exciting language, much like Ebonics is to Standard English. It’s important to realize that, when referring to a language variety like Ebonics or Costeñol, we need to respect the complexity and compelling nature of both.
Ebonics is not inferior to Standard English. As such, Costeñol is not inferior to Standard Spanish, and living within the culture where Costeñol is predominantly spoken, one needs to speak the Barranquillero “prose” in order to “drink” with the Barranquilleros . . . so to speak. When we become egocentric about our own languages and dialects, we lose any linguistic advantage we might have had had we been open to new ways of speaking. Mastering a new language is the ticket to empowerment and inclusion. The more skilled we become at code-switching, the easier we can adapt to new ways of speaking AND thinking.
Yes, you might occasionally ask for shoelaces but receive condoms instead, or you may believe your friend has rabies when she is actually just furious with you for not returning her call. Worst-case scenario, you ask for a penis to comb your hair, and everyone gets a good laugh. It’s all part of the process to becoming the Prince Hal of your new culture.