Mescal Moments: English vs. Spanish
A while back, a coworker of mine introduced her son, who had dropped by for a visit. A Latina who spoke Spanish as well as English, she chose to make the introduction in Spanish, knowing I would understand.
Her son, she said, was a detention officer at the state prison in Yuma. Picking up what I thought was a cue, I said, “un trabajo muy interesante” – “a very interesting job.”
“Not really,” he said, serving notice in not so many words that the conversation to follow would take place in English.
I don’t assume people speak on Spanish just because their skin is brown. And no one needed to tell me he spoke English – I would have assumed so, since I had known his mother for many years.
But for whatever reason, she chose to start the conversation in Spanish, so I followed up in Spanish. And I hope her son figured out I wasn’t trying to stereotype.
That introduction raises an important question for those of us working to master Spanish, and just itching to hone our language skills in conversation with anyone we think might speak Spanish. When is it appropriate, and when is not, to speak Spanish?
These rules of thumb have served me well, and maybe they will serve you as well:
1.) I speak English to any person I meet for the first time north of the border, no matter the color of his/her pigment.
2.) If I discover that person speaks only Spanish, I’ll speak Spanish.
3.) If I know a person speaks both English and Spanish – and if I know that person knows I know – I’ll speak whichever language happens to suit us at the time.
4.) If I go south of the border, I automatically speak Spanish.
5.) If I’m on this side of the border and involved in a discussion with various people, not all of whom speak both languages, I’ll speak English.
There are practical advantages to ignoring Rule No. 5, however. I made this observation many years ago when I stopped at a Yuma convenience store.
The person working the cash register happened to be a very attractive young woman. And hovering there at the counter was a young man who was obviously in love.
I could tell he was trying to convince her to go out with him. She, however, seemed not interested or, at best, reluctant.
As I got close to the cash register to buy whatever it was I came for, he switched from speaking English to Spanish.
I stopped short of breaking into conversation to tell the young woman: “Go out with him. Can’t you see he wants to be your love slave?”
I really didn’t care if he won her heart or not. My twisted sense of humor being what it is, I wanted him to know I was on to his tricks.
But I kept my mouth shut and made my purchase. I didn’t want to put her on the spot. He, after all, could very well have been a jerk.