Before arriving, I thought that a very small city in a typically conservative, separatist region would only speak its official language, Spanish. Since then, I’ve quickly learned that I was in fact, very wrong. There is not a defined set of rules for when you should use a language, or even for understanding which languages will be present. Rather, it’s a guessing game based on your knowledge of each language, the knowledge of the person with whom you’re communicating with, and the context in which you are communicating (time, place, number of speakers, etc).
I’ve played the guessing game for enough weeks now that I’ve noticed some patterns in the puzzle:
- Ordering coffee at a cafe. I order in Spanish and he responds to me in English. We both spoke in the language that was not native to us, but is native to the other person.
- Renting a book from the library. I try my best with Spanish but use an English word when I can’t remember the Spanish one. She guesses Spanish words, but I don’t know what they mean so I nod my head and hope for the best.
- Speaking to Spanish classmates in a class taught in English. We both speak English.
- Speaking to English classmates in a class taught in Spanish. We both speak English, until the professor is around and then we speak Spanish.
- Talking to non-English and non-Spanish classmates in a class taught in Spanish. We try our best to speak Spanish, asking for help in our mother tongues from others in the class.
- Buying groceries. We both speak Spanish, until she clues in that I’m an English speaker and answers me in English. Sometimes, she speaks to me in slower Spanish instead.
Do you see why I still don’t actually know when to speak what? While these case scenarios are the most common ones, sometimes I order at a cafe in Spanish and they answer me in Spanish. They’ll also catch me off guard and speak such clear English that I would have thought they were a native speaker. I’ve been thinking about why sometimes I get a different response than other times in such situations. I had a discussion with my friend who is doing her exchange in Germany on what might be having an effect on the type of conversations that we have in our everyday lives abroad.
Here are some of our thoughts – we’re keen to hear yours too:
- Level of Confidence – the more confidence you have while speaking another language, the more likely the native speaker of the other language will believe that you are committed to the language, and will continue speaking to you in that language! (Tried and true.)
- Your Accent – This is a really interesting point that I’ve noticed in two types of conversations. Once, my friend and I ordered the same thing at a cafe. She is Australian, but her mother is a native Spanish speaker, so she naturally has a better ability to imitate the Spanish accent. I am (obviously) Canadian, and don’t have the natural Spanish accent when I speak. Although we said the same thing when ordering, she received a response in Spanish and I received a response in English, from the same server.
- Actual Fluency in the Language – Often, this is where one of the biggest forms of miscommunication occurs. Like many second language learners, I find it rather easy to understand something said to me and rather difficult to find the words and sentence structure to produce a response. Because of this, I find that many Spanish speakers think I have a complete inability to understand Spanish, and choose to speak to me in English instead. I used to find this demeaning in my first few weeks here. I always thought it was almost rude that someone thought they could speak their second language better than I could speak mine, and wouldn’t allow me the opportunity to practice my Spanish with them. However, since time has passed, I’ve come to have a few different perspectives as well. Maybe they are being kind, and want to make me feel welcome by speaking to me in my native language? Or, maybe they want to improve their English and see me as a perfect opportunity to practice a real conversation? I feel like there isn’t one umbrella perspective that can apply to all of my conversations, but I like to think that at least one of these is a reason.
Anyone who has lived abroad, or studied another language and traveled to a region in which that language is spoken, will understand me when I say how difficult this guessing game is. Now, as much fun as it is to not know what language to speak between a native English speaker and a native Spanish speaker (both with a reasonable understanding of the other language), let’s imagine these other popular case scenarios that I see every day:
- A group of English speakers – Germans, Italians, Spanish and French – talking around a table. All know some degree of English and Spanish.
- A Spanish language class filled with half English speakers and half Mandarin speakers. All have some degree of Spanish fluency. The English do not understand Mandarin, and some Mandarin speakers don’t understand English.
- An economics class taught in English to a group of primarily native Spanish speakers. The only native English speakers in the class are exchange students. Other exchange students in the class have neither English nor Spanish as their native language.
- An apartment with one English roommate, one German, one Taiwanese and two Colombians. Varying degrees of English proficiency among all roommates. All have some fluency in Spanish, except one.
What happens now?
Just like before, there’s no rules. It’s not a math problem with some logical algorithm to make it all make sense. It’s still our ever so famous guessing game – with some patterns.
More often than not, we aim to speak the language that most of us have in common. When there’s two languages that the group knows, we bounce back and force with both to teach each other new words and give us a chance to practice our second languages. In cases that there is many languages, it all depends on who you are speaking to – a German speaks to a German in German, unless it’s something he wants to share with the group and then will choose to speak it in English instead. In a class with multiple languages, we usually sit with our friends who we share a language with, allowing us to chat with them and rely on each other’s help to understand the second and third languages in the room.
Rarely is a conversation ever in one language, and to be quite honest, I really like it like that!
Alexandria Hewko is a third-year Bachelor of International Business student who is studying abroad in Spain.
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