Chicago Story: “I want to talk right down to earth …”

“… in a language that everybody here can easily understand …”

I’ve established that I don’t speak Spanish. But that’s only mostly true. I can talk a little. If you walk into my office and want to know about our classes, I can explain the whole program to you: how to register, what tests you’ll have to take, how long the waiting list is … Oh? You want to take the GED in Spanish? I can tell you about that, too. Oh? You don’t read and write in Spanish? Let me tell you about our Spanish Literacy class.

So yes, I can hold my own in Spanish if all we’re talking about is my job. But try to have a conversation with me that’s ‘off-message,’ and I’m in trouble.

I can fool people, though. I often understand quite a lot, so people think I can speak that well, too. And the little Spanish I do know, I know well, so I can say it pretty fluidly and quickly … again making people think I speak much better than I really do.

I said all that to say this: I speak Spanish at work because I have to, because I don’t want prospective students to feel unwelcome or frustrated because they can’t get the information and help they need. But, as much as I’d love to, I don’t really speak Spanish. When I’m with the INEA people, I become English-only. I get shy about using any of the Spanish I know.

My shyness is about vanity, of course. I don’t like to look less-than-skilled. With prospective students it’s not an issue. If I can make them laugh because I can’t figure out how to say something and resort to funny pantomime, it eases our communication, makes them feel more relaxed. And that’s a good thing. But if I’m talking to my peers, if I’m talking about my work, that’s different. I need to sound like I know what I’m doing.

But it’s more than vanity.

Our interpreters at the training, as I said, did an excellent job. And two of the workshop presenters even checked in with me to see if the set up was working well for me. And, yes, my English-only companion in the workshop was a little annoying, but all of that was just fine.

What wasn’t fine was what happened every time my needs-an-interpreter friend asked a question. She would lean over and tell the interpreter that she had a question to ask. The interpreter would offer to present her question and would ask what her question was. She wouldn’t answer. She would look away and go back to focusing on the presentation.

And then she’d raise her hand and, when called on, she’d smile in a cutesy way and say in halting, awkward, awfully-accented Spanish: “Een-GLAYS, por FAH-vor?” And of course the presenter would say she could use English. Everyone in the room, after all, spoke English. And then this woman would ask her question in her cutesy, hesitant, simpering Spanish. I want to be wrong, but she definitely seemed to be playing up her bad accent and her herky-jerky speaking style. She ducked her head a little in an apologetic pose. (I only hope my face didn’t show the disgust I was feeling.) She would ask her question, and then she would give another cutesy smile, another hopeful, apologetic head bob.

And everyone in the room would applaud.

Applaud. Every time she asked a question. As if she was a high-performing trained seal. A favorite puppy doing a clever trick. And she seemed to be playing for the applause. I don’t know that I can quite articulate just how offended I was by the whole thing. And I don’t think the applause was meant to be insulting, but I can’t find another way to feel about it. I’m actually pretty certain it was meant as a kind of ‘thank you’ to her for making the effort. There’s just something too condescending in that ‘aplauso’ for my liking. The other anglos in the room, the ones who spoke Spanish just fine, didn’t applaud. And when they used their Spanish and asked their questions, no one thought it necessary to applaud them.

I’ll learn Spanish. Of course I will. I want to, I already have a pretty good foundation, and I learn languages fairly easily. So I’ll learn Spanish. Maybe even in time for Guadalajara in November. And when I am able to talk about more than enrolling in my adult ed program, I’ll even use my Spanish with the INEA crowd. But if anyone has the nerve to clap for me …


(No. I really can’t pick this particular post title and not give the nod to Vernon Reid’s opening lick from Cult of Personality …)


5 thoughts on “Chicago Story: “I want to talk right down to earth …”

  1. Don’t you find that this sort of situation makes you wonder if your the only one seeing something for how it really is? When ever this happens to me, I have this otherworldly, out of body sensation that I’m watching from afar. The voices in my head scream, “Can’t you people see what’s happening here? It’s a play for attention! Helllllooooooooooo?”

    Probably not the P.C. thing to do. My only hope is that the filter that exists between my brain and mouth won’t ever let me down.

    Turkish Prawn


  2. Ha! I keep counting on that filter, too! I think I’m getting less good at keeping my face from showing what I really feel, though. Have to work on that.

    I’m guessing the native English speakers who could speak Spanish saw what was going on. I could be wrong, but the lack of clapping would seem a clear message …


  3. I’m glad this post is still at the top, because I was starting to think that maybe NYC gets 72 hours for every 24 of San Francisco’s, because I come here nearly every day and you always seem to have put up three new things!


  4. Hey, Linda. I guess I do post a lot, don’t I? This week I’ve really been off my game, here and in my real-time life. Not helped at all by the news about Joycelyn. My heart is aching right now, my eyes well up every time I think of her.


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