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Ask a Mexican

Speak Proper Spanish

Why is Spanish consistently dumbed down?

By Gustavo Arellano
Posted // May 23,2011 -

Dear Mexican: I’m a Spanish court interpreter in Santa Bárbara, California; I’ve also worked in Los Angeles courts. I just read your most recent column regarding the promotion of the learning and practicing of English by Latinos in the United States. Generally, I agree with your view. But my question is why can’t we also promote the use and practice of PROPER SPANISH in this country? One only needs to take a stroll through the many Latino neighborhoods throughout California and witness the signage on businesses, and nonprofits alike, with awful misspellings and grammatical errors—or flip through the pages of community periodicals, or view the commercials on U.S. Spanish television and see the same linguistic garbage!

But that is not the worst of it. What about the legions of "bilingual” service professionals that work in private and public agencies who speak and write substandard Spanish? Many of these “professionals” are just taken at their word when they assert that they grew up speaking Spanish, with their bi-literacy never truly tested. Sadly, this is the case with most Chicanos, and even native Latinos who neglect their Spanish literacy in favor of awkwardly assimilating into a forced English. Their arguments for using improper Spanish are disingenuous: “Mexican immigrants won’t get the big words,” or, “Sometimes, there aren’t translations for big words or concepts.” The fact is that these “professionals” project their own linguistic incompetence and intellectual indifference when they use Spanglish or other phonetic contrivance in dealing with the Spanish-speaking community. English is the only official language in the United States (something we are constantly reminded of), so our Spanish can only be based on something just as official. Why is Spanish not respected as an established foreign language? Why is it consistently dumbed down?

As a court interpreter, it’s my duty to translate complicated legal terminology everyday. It’s unethical for me to lower the register, and use words like tíquete, corte, probación, and felonía, when the proper words are boleta de tránsito, tribunal, condena condicional, and delito grave, respectively. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the public I work with understands and appreciates my formal usage. Such standards should apply to any field. I’ve come to realize that the human experience is universal: There is a veritable translation for everything! Moreover, it’s actually impossible to direct a translation to a certain group or audience, as the only material that the translating agent has to work with is the source language, English. Walter Benjamin argues this point quite well in his essay, “The Task of the Translator.” Apart from the academic shortcomings, this practice also promotes a negative stereotype: Those dumb Mexicans are too illiterate to understand.

Finally, I must ask: Do Latino immigrants really need to master English? Isn’t it possible to create capital and business opportunities and communities in a strictly Spanish-speaking context? Many major corporations already attempt to cater to our market, the largest ethnic group in the United States. Other ethnicities do the same, don’t they? —Hasta la Madre en Sta. Bárbara

Dear Wab: Usually, I ask readers to chop down their preguntas as much as possible—we can’t regulate our borders, but we can sure as hell protect against run-on sentences—but yours was an eloquent-enough rant to sneak in and raises many interesante points. As a court interpreter, you know the difference between legal and colloquial English, so I suggest you treat Spanish the same—I doubt you ask for prayer when demanding your breakfast bill. Besides, what kind of a boring world would we live in if proper language governed how we spoke? That’s right: France. And of course Latinos should learn English—remember, it’s the bilinguals who’ll rule the world, and the monolinguals who’ll get left behind. Just look at what’s happening to gabachos in our global economy …

Spanglish—not the horrible Adam Sandler movie, but the language. Long viva mongrel tongues! Abajo with custodians of Cervantes, Shakespeare and Flaubert!

Ask the Mexican at,,, find him on Twitter, or write via snail mail at: Gustavo Arellano, P.O. Box 1433, Anaheim, CA 92815-1433!

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Posted // May 27,2011 at 10:11

Thenk you Mr. Arellano for posting such an interesting comment, and for allowing me to make a comment.

I could not agree more with the Santa Barbara court interpreter. Spanish is a great language. And so is French. And both, (yes Mr. Arellano, both), as well as any other language in the world have different registers when speaking in different settings and addressing different people. I doubt you would address your boss as "Dear Dude". Besides, the use of colloquial Spanish is not what this court interpreter is debating, but rather the butchering of a beautiful language and the subtle discrimination that comes with the fact that such practice is accepted because in the end, all Hispanics must be ignorant so you need to talk to them as such. As a first generation Hispanic woman in the US, I find that extremely insulting. As a linguist, I know how rapidly languages evolve. But the evolution of a language does not have to entail its destruction. This interpreter is reproaching the acceptance of what we call in linguistics "Barbarisms", usually brought forward by many who, without the education and/or credentials, call themselves "translators" just because they speak another language, or so they say. To them and to all I say, being bilingual makes you a translator as much as breathing makes you a pulmonary expert. Kudoz to the Santa Barbara interpreter!

Thank you.


Posted // May 25,2011 at 06:02

I don't understand what is the problem of speakind and writing proper Spanish, as you would do with the English. I don't understand why is so difficult for a Spanish monolingual speaker to teach to their children a proper Spanish (because they already speak it) and then, the children, as they will go to school, they will be able to learn proper English too. I don't live in the US but I am very sure they now offer good Spanish lessons in all schools, so all Spanish speakers are able to learn to write Spanish properly.

I understand perfectly that many of the business owners in the Latino neighbourhoods haven't been able to go to school as a child, and had to immigrate to the US precisely to be able to secure a future for their child. So, well, I understand if you can't spell properly, but why not ask for help when writing a note to hang on your shop window or to do the sign of your restaurant? Is it really that difficult?

What is even worse to me is that rejection or even wanting or trying to speak proper Spanish and prefering to speak Spanglish (which probably wont' be properly understood by either monolingal Spanish speakers nor monolingual English speakers). Yes, it's true that it might be harder for a Spanish speaker to succeed if they can't speak English but, with New York being a city where there are more Spanish native speakers than actually English native speakers, isn't it the time for you guys to be proud of who you are and where you are from and, well, have you say at it? I have readl several articles about how US companies located in mostly-Spanish speaking areas (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami...) are starting to not only teach Spanish to their employeed but also consider Spanish as the business language and they are, every time more, trying to find employeed who can speak proper Spanish.

The thing is that Spanish is the second native language most spoken in the world (after Chinese) and also the second language in the world in terms of non-native language (behind English). I think now is the time for Spanish speakers to not only show that they can speak proper English, but also speak and write proper Spanish and invert the roles, being Spanish the new business language and make all English speakers learn Spanish ;)

¡Estad orgullosos de hablar español! ¡El español está de moda!


Posted // May 26,2011 at 03:27 - Hello! No, I didn't say you made me feel offended. Not at all. I just said that it seems that you were trying to run away from your origins by saying that there is no point on writing Spanish correctly. Also, I didn't say you cannot use two levels of Spanish, of course you can! You won't speak the same way to your parents or to your teacher or to someone you don't know, and that is the beauty of the Spanish, that just changing "t" for "usted", the whole thing changes :) What I am saying is that it is much easier for you, as someone living in the US from foreign parents to learn BOTH languages perfectly that it would be, for example, for me. So please, take that chance to do it, take that chance to also help others to do it. I am not saying that Spanish speakers should invade theworld and f*** English. No way! If it wasn't for the English, I woulnd't have a job ;) But even though I understand that, depending on where you live, Spanish can be seen as a negative thing, I don't think we should, therefore, force all Spanish speakers to speak only English and do not care if the Spanish is correct or if it's mixed with English. Why? Both communities have the chance to learn both languages to a point that they can switch from one to the other easily! I wish I had ben that lucky! It's like in Switzerland, where they learn 3-4 languages and all Swiss can speak, at least, English, French and German/Italian, without having to spend huge amounts of money on language schools or burning too many neurons ;) I think the other extreme is also bad. All those Spanish-communities where they reject English is as bad as all those English speakers who reject even saying "Hola". Embrace the multiculturality, because that does something to your brain that makes you understand better certain concepts, certain ideas that a person that speaks only one language. You can't imagine how many times I had to argue with vendors explaining them that certaing expression cannot be translated literally into Spanish because it won't have any meaning, or it might have the wrong meaning. Or even once I spent about an hour trying to convince an English guy that "La Muerte" (so The Reaper) was a "she" in Spanish, even though it was represented by a neutral skeleton in a Hoodie habit. And he kept saying that it can't be, that The Reaper was a male and, therefore, I should say "El Muerte"... If a Danish comes to me and tells me that The Reaper is a male in Danish, I will just believe it... With all that, I just want to enhance that, yes, learn English, of course, but that doesn't mean that you have to leave aside your mother tongue and learn to write it and speak it properly... Because it might help you in the future to find a job. I think things are changing all over the world. For some reason, Spanish is starting to become the language everybody wants to learn, not only because it is related to Spanish and Latin American culture, which embraces family and enjoy life, but also because thanks to people like your parents who decide to leave their country to find something better for their children's future, tehre are now English speaking countries with plenty of Spanish speakers, which makes those other cultures also to change a bit, it makes the school curriculum to include Spanish language instead of not having any, as it happened for many years... And I think that is good for everybody but, in particular, for us, Spanish speakers :)


Posted // May 25,2011 at 18:59 - I apologize if I offended you about your origins. As I mentioned, I am a proud 1st generation American, and my roots are equally important to me as they are to you. I would NEVER want anyone to feel as if they had to give up their roots. I also understand your use of colloquial Spanish. In different settings, I use more formal and less formal English. Not positive, but I'm willing to guess most languages have both. My objection was simply, that in this country, you have to know English to function. I don't care about accents - my parents had accents, and when I was young, I sometimes had to explain what they were saying. The difference is that they did everything they could, over the years, to improve the English they had to learn to gain citizenship. In way too many cases, in Utah and in Florida, I've met people who were unwilling to do that. They stuck to Spanish, and expected that English-speakers adapt to them. And, as I said originally, having areas in a city that are predominantly one group or another is lovely! Something I miss about the East Coast is that very diversity. However, when an entire area becomes unfriendly and unusable to those outside that group; when members of groups become "entitled" - that's when I get angry. At one time, I loved living near Miami. However, as the population changed, everything about Miami changed. It became a hostile territory. Rather than becoming an international, multi-lingual city, many areas were closed off to English speakers. Street signs were changed to Spanish. Storefront signs. And heaven help the English speaker who may have tried to drive through, and needed help. I enjoy sharing in the cultures from as many places I can. I open my doors so people can share mine. The last thing America needs are "foreign countries" with their own agenda inside our own borders.


Posted // May 24,2011 at 11:16

Both of you have a point. I have seen Mexicans wanting to impose their spanglish over the corr5ect form to express a thought. Such is the case of "aseguranza" The correct form would be "compañía de seguros" or even "aseguradora". I have seen other cultures trying to impose their slang.
Unfortunately, most of the hispanics people that come into the U.S., are illiterate or of a very low cultural/educational origin.

I, as the writer of this article, do not lower my register, when interpreting in a judicial environment, but when I am in a less formal situation, such as we come out of the court room, I will then explain in a lower register what happened. Sometimes this is not possible.

Regarding the person who answered living in Miami and then moving to Utah, I also find it offensive when someone treats my origins like if those from one of my nationalities is a lesser category. I am a bi-national. Proud American, but also proud of my half Hispanic roots. I hate and feel offended when any Hispanic is treated/insulted/discriminated because of their origin. I have seen many Hispanics make true the American dream, working hard, studying hard. Hispanics, and for that matter, any nationality, condition or preference should not be disrespected.

As interpreters we must be neutral. Just because our client is Hispanic, doesn't mean we will lend them a hand, but we have to understand that when in court, we are just a voice; out of court, we can then give them a hand.


Posted // May 24,2011 at 00:24

I am a proud 1st gen American. My parents HAD to learn English to become a citizen. Why shouldn't every immigrant want to learn English? English is NOT the official language, and I'm glad for that. I wish we all spoke 7 langueages, as those in Europe do.

However, when a person chooses to move to a country where an unknown language is spoken, it is the onus on that person to learn to communicate.

Certainly, across the country, the are spots within cities that cater to specific peoples. But to say that businesses should cater to you because you won't deal with them if they speak the common language is ludicrous!

I lived in the Miami area for many years before moving to Utah. I know what is was like to be screamed at because I couldn't speak "Miami". I know what it was like to watch a city turn its back on English speakers who had lived there for many years before the disgusting instant citizenship for Cubans happened. I watched, live, as a Cuban was welcomed and a Haitian picked up to be deported.

You need to know that, truly, I am the least racist person you will ever meet. However, when I am challenged and threatened in my country, it makes me angry.

If you want to live here, then live here, in peace, and learn that you can assimilate and keep your culture and language at the same time.