Is Spanglish even a real thing?

On Thursday, October 27th Linfield College will host our first National Spanglish Day celebration on campus. On this day, the Linfield community will come together to promote bilingualism, biculturalism and diversity through Spanglish. Students will share original creative pieces that speak of their own bilingual experiences.

What language do you feel most comfortable speaking? When I arrived in the United States as a teenager, I was frequently asked about my native language. I grew up in a bilingual home, with a Spanish-speaking mother and Portuguese-speaking father, a home where both languages were used interchangeably from the start. As a young child, I was not aware they were different languages; the words that I processed and used, though they drew equally from Spanish and Portuguese, were for me a single and natural form of communication. What wasn’t clear to me then is clear to me now – it was our form of communication, a language unique to my home and family. When we moved to the United States I incorporated English into my repertoire of daily languages, further enriching the complex linguistic household milieu. As I look back on my years studying language acquisition and identity, from all of my experiences and the places languages have taken me, one thing has become evident: I am most comfortable around those who can translanguage. Translanguaging is a dynamic process where multilingual language users generate new meanings and create new ways of communication using the resources they have as a result of their multiple languages. In situations where all of my native languages interact with one another, I can fully express myself. As a bilingual, I have learned to appreciate those spaces where I feel most free to speak from within, without translating or facing judgments about accuracy, from all parts of me.

Language evolves, and my comfort level in any one language has never been fixed, having changed at different times of my life. For instance, English was not my strongest when I first arrived to the US, but trying to belong and form a new community forced me to work on it until eventually encounters did not routinely end with inquiries of where I was from or why I had an accent. I was later told I sounded “native.” My Spanish re-thrived when I finished a Masters in Spanish, and finally my Portuguese received an extra boost as I went to Mozambique for my doctoral research. Regardless of my temporary strength in one or another, comfort for me is the ability to switch and combine languages, it is creating a space where my hybrid identity is whole.

Why should we celebrate Spanglish as a practice? In its most basic conception, Spanglish is a mixing of Spanish and English, a dynamic fusion of both into something unique. It is a form of language contact that includes linguistic features such as borrowings, extensions, calques, and code switching. Spanglish is not indiscriminately interspersing Spanish and English; like any language, Spanglish has rules. In practice, it follows a set of highly complex and structured guidelines, sociolinguistic strategies, and constraints. Spanglish is not random.

It can come as a surprise to some to learn that the majority of people who code-switch do not do so because of a deficiency in one or the other language. Instead, code-switching is often used to emphasize a point, cite someone directly, to express a concept that doesn’t exist in one language, to change the topic of conversation, to build solidarity among speakers, and as an identity marker. In the US context, Spanglish is often employed as a mark of bilingual competence and shared community, enabling a particular group of people to identify with one another and increase effective communication. In other words, in the majority of instances we use Spanglish because we can, because we choose to, and because it is part of our identity.

There are language purists dismayed by Spanglish, who argue that it should not be promoted, much less celebrated, that it is a mixed and incorrect way of speaking, one that should be emphatically discouraged. In stigmatizing speakers who fail to use a “standard” or correct Spanish, they lament the loss of “true” Spanish in the United States. An alternative view, shared by proponents of Spanglish, sees languages not as static units but as part of a shared social existence. From this perspective, language evolution is natural as global and diverse cultures increasingly connect. In communities all over the US, including our very own in McMinnville, many see Spanglish as the form of communication that most enables them to express themselves fully.

Spanglish and Spanish are not mutually exclusive. As my bilingual students and I discuss in class, Spanglish is not “incorrect”, though it may be more appropriate in certain situations and might be inappropriate in formal discourses. For heritage language students, Spanish class is there to support them in maintaining their languages, develop academic skills, increase their options in both writing and speaking, encourage students to explore prestige and stigmatized forms of Spanish and expand their bilingual range. By changing the negative attitudes associated with particular languages and dialects, students develop cultural awareness and reinforce their own identity.

All of us arrive at our language use through different trajectories. One of these might be the path of a Chilean-Brazilian-Oregonian, speaking Spanglish and Portuñol; others may have an entirely different, equally unique blend of experiences. With this in mind, I urge us to move away from the guilt associated with an “imperfect” language, and instead validate Spanglish as a pathway to promote bilingualism and biculturalism, to celebrate our diversity by communicating in a language that is part of who we are.

The idea that bilingualism is an identity in itself, not simply two identities in one, is what motivated me to help provide a space for bilinguals to celebrate their diverse experiences and share their voices through their own perspectives of biculturalism. Bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one. I am proud to host our first college-wide Spanglish Day celebration.

Please join us in celebrating National Spanglish Day at Linfield College this Thursday, October 27th from 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm at the Multicultural Center in support of student experiences. Prizes will be awarded and music and snacks will be available.

Hope to see you there!

Sandra Elena L. Terra received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Second Language Acquisition. Dr. Terra is an Assistant Professor of Spanish at Linfield College.