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Biding their tongues

'Hello' or 'hola'? For speakers of both English and Spanish, quickly deciding which language to use can be tricky. There are plenty of cues.

November 12, 2007|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Cuban-born Maria Carreira, the coauthor of two college Spanish textbooks, can glide easily between her native tongue and English. But in her daily life in Southern California, picking which language to speak can be very complicado.

Such as the time when she was at a taco stand where everyone seemed to be ordering and chatting in Spanish. Carreira started placing her order en espanol, but she quickly switched to English after she got a look at the young employee behind the counter.

"He had the bluest eyes," Carreira said.

Carreira, a linguist who teaches at Cal State Long Beach and an expert in the use of Spanish in the United States, acknowledges that she blundered at the taco joint. Though the counterman responded in English, it dawned on her that he had been capably handling orders in Spanish.

Yet her flub reflects a tricky language-etiquette question confronted daily by the nation's growing ranks of English-Spanish bilinguals: When to use ingles and when to speak Spanish?

Not everyone is charmed by the budding bilingualism. Some Americans resent the widespread use of Spanish, particularly at government agencies and public schools. "Our government has gone way too far in encouraging people not to learn English," said Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of Springfield, Va.-based English First, an advocacy group that is working to make English the nation's official language.

Boulet and other critics also complain that Spanish sometimes is used to exclude, or gossip about, people who speak only English.

Still, among the estimated 18 million Americans proficient in both languages, according to the U.S. Census in September, the issue isn't whether to speak English or Spanish, but when. There's the delicate matter of courtesy -- and avoiding bruised feelings. Occasionally, Carreira said, "it's a land mine."

For example, switching to Spanish might seem rude if it suggests the other speaker is inept in English. Yet among Latinos proud of their ethnic heritage, completely avoiding Spanish can come across as standoffish.

Experts such as Carreira say the language decision among bilinguals is often made in a split second, based on cues such as age, clothing and apparent social status -- along with skin, eye and hair color. Location also can be important: Is the venue East Los Angeles or West L.A.?

Names can be giveaways -- or traps. When UCLA student Maricruz Cecena introduced herself with a friendly hola to one of her freshman-year dormitory roommates, Laura Sanchez, and then tried to strike up a phone conversation in Spanish, all she got was an earful of English.

Cecena, a child of Mexican immigrants who grew up speaking Spanish in Lynwood, had assumed too much.

Sanchez can get by fairly well in Spanish but is much more comfortable in English, which was the primary language in her upper-middle-class Mexican American home in Oakland. She said she sometimes is intimidated by friends and acquaintances who speak Spanish much better than she does.

"You don't want them to see that you don't speak as well," Sanchez said, calling the quality of her Spanish a "very personal" issue.

Despite the initial awkward moments, three years later Sanchez and Cecena remain friends. But they do that, in part, by keeping their conversations in English.

As with all etiquette, making the other person comfortable is key.

K.C. McAlpin recalls making small talk recently with a night-crew janitor from Central America who was working at his office.

The conversation started in English, but McAlpin, who grew up in Texas and worked in Latin America in the 1970s, decided to help the janitor when "she got hung up on some word." The conversation then resumed in Spanish.

The location for their chat? The Arlington, Va., headquarters of ProEnglish, another group that promotes making English the nation's official language. McAlpin is the group's executive director.

In other situations, an emotion or habit dictates which language is used. For instance, Helen Gilstrap, a public relations manager for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, conducts business in both languages. But when she prays, it's only in Spanish.

"I learned about God, and was introduced to religion, in Spanish," said Gilstrap, whose parents came from Mexico. She added, with a laugh, that by praying in Spanish, "I just feel that I'd be heard better."

Then there's "code switching" -- flipping back and forth between languages. At the Castaic home of Nelva and Alvaro Jimenez, it's always been unpredictable which language will flow, even when it comes to talking to their dogs.

With their beloved Honey, a Rhodesian ridgeback who died in September, the couple gave commands in Spanish. But with their other dogs, Harley and Sky, it's "come here," not "ven aca."

Alvaro Jimenez insists that the two seem confused when he tries Spanish with them. "They get that look in their faces like, 'You must be angry,' " he said.

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