by Lindsey Chandler
1. You study Spanish-English bilingualism in the U.S. What is something you think the general public should know about this topic?
The term Spanglish can sound as though the languages spoken by bilinguals are somehow mixed, or grammatically corrupt. But when we analyze hundreds of thousands of bilinguals’ own words, we find patterns of linguistic variation that differ between the languages. Bilinguals keep their linguistic systems separate and intact even when using words from both languages in the same sentence. The message is that bilinguals don’t mix up their languages, they mix and match.
2. What can you tell us about the Spanish-English bilingual community in New Mexico?
We have had the privilege of working with the oldest bilingual community in the United States. Spanish has been spoken in northern New Mexico for centuries, way before English arrived to the territory. But today the local variety spoken by New Mexicans is endangered because it is stigmatized both with respect to English and the “proper” Spanish taught in the schools. Still, resisting the shift to English, bilinguals in New Mexico regularly alternate between English and Spanish as the in-group way of conversing.
3. What can you tell us about Spanish-English bilingualism in Pennsylvania?
Spanish language use patterns in Pennsylvania tend to correspond to those found throughout the Spanish-speaking world. For example, among Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia, women tend to use standard variants, such as pronouncing an “s” at the end of Spanish words, more than men do. At the same time, despite segregation from the local majority, Puerto Ricans participate in sound changes in Philadelphia English, as when rice sounds like Royce.
4. Are there common misconceptions about bilingualism that you would like our readers and community members to know about?
We look for individual differences in language proficiency, but outside the university setting, it’s community norms that shape how two languages are combined. Bilingual speech practices may differ even within the same language pair. Take strategies for incorporating English verbs into Spanish: through “light” verb hacer ‘do’ (hacen meet ‘they meet’) or by Spanish suffixes (baqueamos ‘we back’). The light verb strategy is by far the preferred one in the New Mexican community, but it is virtually unknown among Spanish-English bilinguals in Puerto Rico.
Rena Torres Cacoullos is Professor of Spanish and Linguistics.
Her research interests include language variation and change, grammaticalization, and language contact. Her work is from avariationist usage-based perspective, based on the quantitative analysis of natural language production data, spoken and written, in varieties of Spanish, English, and Greek. She serves as editor of Language Variation and Change. Her work on bilingual code-switching is currently being funded by the National Science Foundation. For more information please visit: http://nmcode-switching.la.psu.edu/ .