Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

When you're expected to speak a language you don't - or vice versa

Photo by polandeze/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A short post yesterday highlighted a recent essay from a writer who is part Filipina and part German-Irish, but is often presumed to be Latina - and therefore, to speak Spanish. Only that she can't.

Spanish makes her nervous "because I can’t speak it, and I look like I should," author Sabina Murray wrote on The Nervous Breakdown website. "If you speak to me in Spanish, it feels like an invitation to something great that, unfortunately, I can’t accept."

As expected, the post resonated with readers who posted comments about their own experiences with the languages people expect them to speak - or not - based on how they look.

The "or not" is a biggie, too. Take it from yours truly, a native Spanish-speaking Latina who is all too often asked "How did you learn to speak Spanish so well?"

Here's the comment that Elson Trinidad posted:

Yes, I get this ALL THE TIME as a Filipino. Ironically, though I'm fluent in neither, I know more Spanish than Tagalog. Having grown up all my life to embrace my Filipino heritage, it bugs me a bit when people speak to me in Spanish...but I'm also a native Angeleno and it just comes with the territory, so if I understand what they're saying and can respond in Spanish, I'll do that.

What REALLY annoys me is if I tell a (nearly always) 1st generation Filipino that I'm a kababayan (fellow Filipino) and they'll be in disbelief, and in fact doubt my Filipino-ness. Maybe it's because I have an 'American' accent, which smashes their paradigm of what defines a 'Filipino,' but sadly in my life I've been told by waaaaaaaay more Filipinos that I'm "Not Filipino" than white people who have told me I'm "Not American."

On the other hand, the other week, I was buying oranges from my local farmer's market and the Latino vendor said "Maraming Salamat!" to me as I paid for my purchase. I smiled.

That made my day.

And on the other side of that coin, this comment from Engrpax, who identifies as Norwegian-Mexican-Jewish and speaks more Spanish than his half-Peruvian son in law, who people assume speaks Spanish but doesn't (confusing enough?):

I, on the other hand, am Anglo appearing, (blond hair, blue eyes, I'm of half Norwegian descent and I've been told that I spoke Norwegian before English, although I don't remember it at all), but I am also of Mexican descent, and I speak Spanish with some ease...

Nevertheless, I was also raised in a half Jewish family, where Yiddish was the other family (business) language.  I've also formally studied Arabic, French, and Japanese with varying results.

I have an adopted (Anglo appearing) daughter who is of Irish/Italian descent who also easily speaks Spanish; she is married to a man who is of German/Peruvian descent, who looks very Latino, but doesn't speak Spanish at all. In social/public situations, he is often addressed in Spanish, and she has to reply for him.

Oh, yeah, we live in So. California, where Spanish IS the other language...

More thoughts, anyone? Have you ever been presumed to speak a language that you don't speak because of your appearance, derided for not speaking your native tongue, or thought not to speak it (when you do) because you don't fit an expected stereotype?