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.


Laura Cambra said...

Tu dominio del español es notable.
Tu autoexigencia también.

Will said...

Is that grammar girl in the comic?