It was a humbling experience to immerse myself in a Spanish-speaking culture. It caused feelings of inferiority and also of perplexity. I was competent in English with skills that got me good grades as an English major, but these skills did little good when my Colombian friends would rattle off some Spanish colloquialisms and inside jokes as I sat baffled and demoralized, forcing a smile to fit in but unsure of what was being said. I learned quickly that my native language wasn’t going to furnish the power and prestige that it once provided me.
My humbling Spanish immersion experience, combined with my weekends teaching English as a Second Language in Colombia, have led me to ponder the sociolinguistics of language acquisition. Despite feeling exhausted at first, trying to keep up with Barranquilla lingo, I gradually gained confidence in Spanish, which steered me toward a much more enjoyable time in Colombia. I was able to afford a trip to a Spanish school in Guatemala, a subscription to Rosetta Stone, and was able learn the language at my own pace because my job (and livelihood) didn’t depend on it. My language-learning motivation stemmed from a desire to be more comfortable in the Colombian culture (and to talk to women, of course).
My experience was different from many language learners of the world, and moving to Colombia has made me realize how privileged I am to have been born in an English-speaking country. We often tend to overlook sociolinguistics when discussing social justice issues, and we underestimate the importance of communication skills in social mobility.
English is a highly sought-after language in Colombia. There are those that go to the elite private schools with highly-trained native English teachers, and those that don’t. Almost every high school in Barranquilla offers English courses, but often the only students that learn it are the ones that go to the highest quality schools. I see two great injustices: one, speaking sound English acts as a prerequisite to success in a lot of societies, and two, many deserving and hardworking people have very limited or no opportunities to increase their English proficiency.
I am torn because I want to rebel against Standard English and its elitist nature, but I also understand the opportunities it can provide. The devil on my right shoulder wants to tell my students to craftily split their infinitives, and that ending their sentences with a preposition is not unheard of! I stifle the urge to allow adjectives like “whack,” “tight” and “sick,” in expository essays. I want to tell them that it is unjust that standard English has a monopoly over slang, Ebonics, and even over other world languages. “Hold onto your native tongue!” “Resist!” But then there is the angel on my left shoulder telling me that little Alejandro from Colombia might get a job someday if he speaks fluent English, or Ashley from Minnesota will have a better shot at getting into college if she understands that “the bomb” might not be the best adjectival phrase to use in her application essay.
The truth is, English is the language of opportunity and sometimes oppression. Standard English is shelved in the cookie jar in the nether regions of the linguistic kitchen. When part of society is laughing as it gluttonously scarfs its one flavor of delicious cookie, those unable to reach the jar are starved for words. English is a commonly sought-after language all over the world. It’s the language of business, of advancement and of opportunity. The desire to learn English is greater than that of any other language, but not everyone has access to the language.
Given my gringo-like appearance, people on the Barranquilla streets or buses perceive me as a grand opportunity to speak English. I hear a robotic, “Hello, how are you?” from those I pass on the way to the grocery store. Colombian friends have also made me teach them English, and fellow bus riders have asked for my email to join the ESL class I taught. English is in high demand, period.
Language should be used for liberation and upward mobility, and not for oppression. Even though Standard American English is not the most complex language or dialect in the world, we all know there are certain language skills that engender freedom in an often restrictive society. Therefore, what is our calling as linguistic socialists? We must celebrate linguistic diversity, learn as much as we can about how different cultures communicate, and then share the words, dialects, communication styles, and languages that lead to social mobility. When we see those below the cookie jar trying to feed off the crumbs of the privileged, maybe we can slide a stool over, so they too can help themselves to some linguistic nourishment.