May 26, 2010 | Spanish

Conversation: Foiled!

Finding opportunities to speak Spanish can be a challenge, even in New York City.

It is not the easiest thing in the world to get people to talk to me in Spanish. I find a huge range in willingness of Spanish speakers to speak Spanish to me without reverting promptly to English. 

There are numerous and varied factors—cultural, political, linguistic, etc.—involved in this phenomenon. Occasionally it appears to be related to the proximity of an English-speaking boss. I don’t think it has much to do with disdain over the quality of my Spanish, which is sufficient for most purposes, though sometimes I am sure people feel it’s more courteous to switch to the language I am most comfortable in.

Fairway with Avian Customer

Fairway with Avian Customer

Often at Fairway, my favorite local grocery store, if the cashier ringing up my groceries is talking to one of her co-workers in Spanish, I will address her in Spanish as well. To my great disappointment, at least half of the time the answers come back in English.

Last Friday at a running store, by contrast, I had a rather detailed conversation with an acquaintance, in Spanish, about plantar fasciitis, which is a heel inflammation common among runners. I have had conversations with him a couple of times before, and he is perfectly willing to speak to me in Spanish, even though he is totally bilingual and I am not, and even when I make mistakes or stumble as I search for a word. I am the one who eventually switches out of Spanish back into English, usually around the time that my accumulation of errors makes me self-conscious that I am sounding simple-minded. I have to stop worrying about such things.

We have quite a few Spanish speakers among my apartment building’s staff; they know I am studying, seem happy to speak to me in Spanish, and even initiate conversations in Spanish with me.

Twice today, on the other hand, first in a downtown office and later at a 5K road race in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I addressed people in Spanish—one was already speaking Spanish, and the other was clearly more comfortable in Spanish than English—and both persisted in speaking to me in English.

Prospect Park Tonight, After the Al Goldstein 5K

Riding Back to Manhattan on the Q Train

To compensate, I have been watching Univision and NY1 Noticias. I find it hard to follow TV-pace reporting and programming without concentrating far more than I am accustomed to concentrating on television. I think it is good for me, though. Also, there are some interesting features, unfamiliar to me from my previous TV-watching experiences. The Spanish version of NY1, for example, involves far more cleavage—often impressively sculptural cleavage—than the English version.

Comments (5)

Ken • Posted on Thu, May 27, 2010 - 9:53 am EST

Get out of my head!  Yesterday you mention Greek and I’m eating a Greek salad.  Today this and the guy right by my cube, installing an Exit sign, tells me he’s been talking to himself in Spanish about how to get the thing to fit.  Too bad you’re not here.  I bet he’d love to talk to you.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, May 27, 2010 - 1:45 pm EST

And I even know how to say “exit” and “sign” in Spanish. Rats.

Julie • Posted on Fri, May 28, 2010 - 1:19 pm EST

My partner and I are both doing a lot of work these days with non-English speakers. In his case French people and in my case Brazilians.

We are finding the same phenomenon: meetings that should last 45 minutes go on for two hours because the non-English speakers miss nuances in our voices (and I’m not blaming them)—the kind of subtle inflection that communicates this: “I’m mentioning this as a minor point, but we don’t have to discuss it in detail now.”

We suspect that the non-English speakers are working so hard to comprehend our words that they miss the subtler cues that connote priority of ideas. So everything is of paramount importance and must be discussed in detail.

Now we’re learning to just put those points in emails and not even bring them up on the phone. And the meetings are getting shorter.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, May 28, 2010 - 4:33 pm EST

Two observations, Julie:

1. Your experiences underscore how hard it is to REALLY learn a language!

2. Shorter meetings will make the world a much better place; yours is a noble goal, and I commend you for it.

Kristina • Posted on Sun, May 30, 2010 - 7:46 am EST

True about voice inflection and such. I worked with a deaf person who read lips. He was able to follow conversations, but did not understand subtle humor or vocal emphasis. Once I figured this out, our conversations were much more productive. I learned to begin discussions with “This is very important….”

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