Sunday, August 16, 2009

The disadvantage of being a native English speaker

The title of this post may seem a little counterintuitive. In fact, almost everything about being a native English speaker is an advantage in an increasingly globalized world, where English is the international business language and the universal when-all-else-fails language. In fact, when I watch non-natives try to remember our proper usage of prepositions or phrasal verbs (such as the important differences between throw up, throw down, throw away, throw on and throw out), I am grateful that I innately understand the difference. So, I indeed am prefacing this blog saying that I would not want to be anything but a native English speaker.

However, with this luxury comes the fact that it is simply harder to learn Spanish unless one is really disciplined. First, everyone wants to practice their English. If I spoke Ukrainian or Korean no one would come up to me and ask to test out their conversational abilities. And, wanting to make friends and not be a jerk, I oblige much to my chagrin. The moment I started traveling, this fact became apparent, probably most marked when people in China would yell "Hello! How are you!?" as I walked by, or an example last night where a woman came over too our dinner table to ask me about our giant ice cream sundae-like creation and awkwardly asked "what is this?" only to be responded to, much to her disappointment, in fluid conversational Spanish. This is why I increasingly tell people that I am German, because my accent gives me away only as a foreigner and not necessarily as a 'yanqui', or North American.

The second and less expected disadvantage I am experiencing with English is that often the readings that are assigned in our classes at the Universidad Torcuato di Tella are either translations of a book originally written in English or are assigned directly in English, with no translation offered.
First, this seems strange to me because it suggests that my Spanish-speaking classmates are expected to speak college-level English, but no other language, showing just how much the English-speaking world is permeating into other countries.
Also, because we have so many different tasks in this graduate program, as much as I would like to spend hours pouring over readings in Spanish, it is simply done quicker if I read it in English.
Also, for books like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, assigned last week, they lose some of their essence in translation, and it does not make sense for me to read it in Spanish.

My most recent professor Karina Galperín, who did her doctorate at Harvard, told me unsolicited that I could write my final project in English with no problem. Her class is almost exclusively English speaking authors, only one week with an emphasis on readings in Spanish, focusing on Argentine Rodolfo Walsh's Operación Masacre. However, she certainly would not have suggested that I write my final paper in Chinese if I was a native Chinese speaker.

My complaints are relatively unwarranted. The fact that I have the luxury to often be able to take an easier route linguistically and then later blame my slower progress in learning Spanish seems absolutely absurd. Nevertheless, I am convinced that if I spoke any other language besides English, my Spanish would be a lot better.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Colectivo. . . of deception.

Photo: Archive of La Nación

Today during class, the editor of the General Information section of La Nación said: "La Presidenta miente constatemente [the President lies constantly]."  

My classmates nodded, not even batting their eyes at this statement that encompasses myriad problems with Argentine politics: deception, corruption, lack of democratic voice, for starters. 

The moment quickly passed, but I was left with an eerie feeling that no response was not a good sign.  If a journalism professor of mine would have said to the class that our president was constantly lying to us, some noise would have been made, someone would have protested.  Rather, this statement was met with a few nods, a few chuckles and some blank non-registering eyes.  

I asked the founder of an English language newspaper in Buenos Aires today in an interview if she thought that Argentine politics were particularly hard for foreigners to understand and she responded affirmatively, pointing out that this country is still in the process of maturing its democracy after a bloody dictatorship and that makes its recent history especially complicated and difficult.  However, she said, unless some fundamental changes are made with the current government, such as people accounting for their actions or taking responsibility for the issues that happen under their watch, this country is not going to progress.

The responses of my classmates, all graduate journalism students, the majority of them Argentine, makes me pessimistic that there is likely to be changes soon, despite the recent legislative elections.  Argentine citizens have taken as fact that their politicians lie, steal their tax money and take advantage of the poor and ignorant to continue in power.  And even when it's said out loud, no one denies it, all protests have ceased.  One male classmate says that Argentina is like a battered wife: she has been hit so many times that when she gets hit now, she just takes it.