Excuse Me, What Language Are You Speaking?

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As members of the Hispanic community, we know that being Hispanic is not an ethnicity, but rather that we are made up of many different races. Black Hispanics, Asian Hispanics, White/European Hispanics, etc. Most of us get it. I don’t question where someone is from or what their background is just because I had a different perception. And that goes for what language they speak.

I am Chilean of German grandparents and my son, whom I have spoken only Spanish to since birth, and is now nearly 4 years old, is half Chileno, half American, has blonde hair and blue eyes which by the public’s misconceptions means he shouldn’t know more than one language — much less Spanish. He has been the topic of many conversations while waiting in line at the store and I have had more than my share of confused looks and odd questions.

“Excuse me, I was just wondering what language you are speaking to your son?” asked a women in line at the UPS store one day. I smiled and said “Spanish.” She looked down at Matías, then back at me and said. “Really? I would have never have guessed. I thought maybe French. I mean, it didn’t sound like Spanish. It is a dialect or something?”

“No” I replied, “just regular Spanish.”

“Wow! I would have never guessed.”

Although I didn’t continue the conversation with her I thought, well why not? Because he doesn’t look like what your perception of a Hispanic is? And of course the opposite is true too. I have a Chilean friend married to an Argentinian both of whom understand Spanish, but are not fluent and they do not speak to their children in the language. You could say they “look” Hispanic. He is of a darker complexion and their children both have dark hair, brown eyes and darker skin. When they are out, people automatically think they know Spanish by asking them what certain words are and have other Spanish speakers address them first in Spanish. She usually has to steer the conversation back to English, but nonetheless she feels uncomfortable because people assume, based on their looks, that they must speak the language.

I can pretty much guarantee that if my son had darker features there wouldn’t be so many questions, in fact it would be taken as a given that we speak Spanish (as it happens with my friend). I remember I once read an article from a Nicaraguan woman who wrote about her “blonde-haired, blue-eyed bilingual son” and her similar experiences and ridiculous questions from strangers. In her case, many assumed she was the nanny because of her darker looks and that the child she was speaking to couldn’t possibly be hers. I wish I had that article now to reference, but I read it long before my son was born.

Now Matías is attending preschool and his teacher and the social worker nearly jumped out of their chairs when they heard him speak Spanish back to me one day, “Oh, I didn’t know he actually SPOKE Spanish,” said his teacher. “I just thought, you know, that you spoke to him every once in a while. I wouldn’t know because his English is perfect.”

I smiled, looked down at my boy and said, “Yes, he speaks Spanish. And very, very well.”

It was just another pivotal moment in my quest to raise my son bilingual — no matter if he “looks” the part or not.


{photo courtesy of María José Ovalle}

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