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These Students Speak Perfect Spanglish — And Now They're Learning To Own It

Jacqueline Alcántara for NPR

Porfa please. Pero like. Janguear(to hang out).

These Spanglish phrases are all the results of contact between Spanish and English. In a Texas college classroom, students are learning that Spanglish — a version of Spanish that's influenced by English — is just as valid as any other Spanish dialect.

"What history teaches us is that the only constant is change," explains Meghann Peace, who teaches this class primarily in Spanish at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. "When two or more languages are in constant geographic and social contact, there will always be linguistic consequences."

And yet Spanglish, or U.S. Spanish, is sometimes looked down upon by native speakers of both languages. Even in a state like Texas, where nearly 30% of the population speaks Spanish at home, there's a perception that it's better to speak "pure Spanish."

Peace is teaching her students — who mostly grew up speaking a mix of Spanish and English — to challenge those negative perceptions.

"I think the one that judges me the most is myself," says freshman Angie Bravo, 18.

Bravo grew up in Laredo, Texas, just across the border from Mexico. Her first language was Spanish, and she wishes she were better at it. But this semester, she's learning there's nothing wrong with the way she speaks the language. It's just a different dialect from the one spoken in Madrid or Mexico City.

The pressure to be perfect

U.S. Spanish has been in college course catalogs for several years. According to a 2016 survey from New Mexico State University, more than 40 colleges across the country are teaching about it.

Peace asks her students if they ever get negative reactions when they speak U.S. Spanish.

Mary Villines, a biology major from the Rio Grande Valley, says she does. She says people who speak only Spanish or English will sometimes assume she doesn't speak their language well and correct her.

"But what bothers me is that they only speak one language," Villines explains in Spanish. "How are you going to correct me when you don't even know what I'm saying?"

Elisha Carrillo, an international and global studies major, also feels the pressure to speak flawlessly.

"I think people get confused because they assume if you're brown, you speak perfect Spanish," she says after class. "People everywhere just expect you to be a certain way because of how you look."

Carrillo's family has lived in San Antonio for generations. She says her mom and grandma speak Spanish, but they didn't really teach it to her. Instead, Carrillo learned the language in school.

"My grandparents talk a lot about being discriminated in school for speaking Spanish," Carrillo says.

There's a long history of "English only" policies in some American schools, including in Texas.

"I think, just like subconsciously, they think, 'Oh, we're not supposed to speak that.' "

"Should I be Hispanic, or should I be American?"

Spanglish isn't the only dialect that has popped up from contact between two languages — there's also Franglais, Taglish and Portuñol.

And while Spanglish is sometimes thought of as a random mishmash of two languages, Peace tells her class the dialect is actually very systematic. She says its speakers follow both languages' rules when they code-switch.

She writes an example on the classroom's whiteboard — the phrase "a girl who was walking her dog." In Spanish, it would be "una chica que estaba paseando su perro." One way to say it in Spanglish: "una girl que estaba walking her dog."

Then she gives an example of a sentence that doesn't work as well in Spanglish: "I already told you the most interesting story." In Spanish, it would be, "Ya te dije la historia más interesante." Peace says this one is harder to translate into Spanglish because it has a different sentence structure in Spanish and English.

"Bilingual speakers have to know both languages very, very well in order to code-switch in the same sentence," she explains in Spanish.

That lesson resonates with Bravo, who grew up near the border.

"It's taught me to be a lot more accepting," Bravo says.

To be able to speak Spanglish is to be able to say to people that I am Mexican American, and that's OK.

"I didn't really take into account the rules that we don't speak about but we understand."

For Bravo, language is intertwined with identity.

"When I was growing up, I had a lot of issues [around] being Hispanic. I didn't understand, like, what does it mean to be Hispanic? Should I be Hispanic, or should I be American? And so I think it's because I struggled with that that I want to be able to do both," Bravo says. "To be able to speak Spanglish is to be able to say to people that I am Mexican American, and that's OK."

Peace has one thing to say to those who believe Spanglish is an attack on a "pure" language: "A standard dialect is simply the standard because the people who are in power made it the standard."

Pure languages, she says, don't exist.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Camille Phillips covers education for Texas Public Radio.She previously worked at St. Louis Public Radio, where she reported on the racial unrest in Ferguson, the impact of the opioid crisis and, most recently, education.