“Si entiendes el espanol, este articulo es para ti!”

“Tefhem il Arabieh?”…”Entiendes el espanol?”…”Verstehen Sie Deutch?”

Upon reading these three questions, did you feel included or excluded? In Paul Adam’s work about Inclusion and Exclusion in the context of global media, he discusses how language is more than just a means of communication. “Language lies at the heart of a nation’s education system, culture, and identity….[they] are associated with national identity [that] provides a sense of security, belongingness and common heritage”(Adams, 92). This statement embodies all that I have experienced living as a foreigner, having had to cultivate my own cultural and socio-political identity in Southern Spain (Andalusia).

When I first studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain, my Spanish skills were disastrous. So entertained was my host family by my ability to fabricate Spanish words during desperate attempts to communicate that they hung a list on the fridge, showcasing all the shameful vocabulary I had invented. And no. No one understood me during those painful first months of my experience as a foreigner in Andalusia. For example, instead of telling my host mother, “I’ll have a sandwich for my lunch”, I stated, “I’ll have a wine barrel and eat myself for lunch”.

Social, educational, political and cultural exclusion by means of language was evident everywhere—my University class notes remained largely blank pages, peppered with the occasional comprehended words scribbled in haste; given the Spaniards (in Andalusia, at least) had very little English and tight social circles, my ability to make friends in those first two months was limited to other English speaking foreigners. Politically, I longed to join in on the debates and exciting protests involving the US held almost daily outside of the city’s luminous cathedral, “La Giralda” and city hall; but alas, I lacked the ability to fully express my political views, both in the written and oral form. There were even some occasions when I ordered in a restaurant or grocery shopped in the open air markets and remained perplexed as to how I was just charged 20 euros on items that cost the Spaniard next to me 3 euros, at most. Culturally, I cannot even tell you how many rules of the Spanish “damas”, or “ladies”, I violated in that first month(apparently, a true lady never orders her own beer, sweats in public, goes out without heels, etc).

Without an ability to enter the Spanish community and feel socially, politically, culturally accepted, even by the education system, I experienced what one defines as “culture shock”. The adverse power of language couldn’t have been more obvious at that time as I struggled to build an identity for myself in a city where I knew no one and had no ties to the nation-state other than as a “visiting and outside” member of Spanish society. One could even go so far as to say that the Spanish system had a power advantage over me. Economically, it could reap the benefits of my inability to understand how to buy train and bus tickets correctly from the Spanish only web sites and vendors selling them at random prices on the streets. Politically, if I had a complaint about the system, or in my case, about a creepy man following me home at night, it was barely seen as legitimate, as I was not a legal citizen of the country. Culturally and socially, during the first month in Seville and until I learned the cultural norms of Andalusia, I’m pretty sure I was an embarrassment to the locals.

But little by little, as I gained Spanish fluency and a cultural identity inextricably linked to language acquisition, the power advantage of Spain and it’s people began to diminish. In it’s place,after 4 months, my University notebooks began to fill up. After 6 months, I was going to the marketplace, buying from different vendors who offered me a discount price on my produce because I could banter with them in Sevillano slang. When I returned to Malaga, Spain post-graduation from college and stayed there for the next 3.5 years of my life, I made plenty of Spanish friends, worked for the Spanish government and successfully participated in heated debates at the dinner table with my Spanish boyfriend. Visiting family and friends could see that I was no longer a foreigner living abroad, but rather, I had gained”inclusion” status in Spanish society by reaping the cultural, social, political and economic benefits afforded by the Spanish language.


3 Comments to ““Si entiendes el espanol, este articulo es para ti!””

  1. I lived in Sevilla for 2 months during college and felt similar frustrations as you mentioned at the beginning of your post. I wanted Spanish friends and was not terrible at speaking it, but comprehending the slang and the variety of accents took so much energy, it was intimidating to me. Ironically, I made my best Spanish friends in high school. They were study abroad students from Madrid and I made an effort to befriend them and visit them when I was in Spain. I am completely aware of the fact that they were within my perceptual comfort zone, but I think their willingness to study abroad spoke to the fact that they were the kind of people who just loved other people and wanted to interact. They were patient with my blunders, but encouraged and corrected me, too. When I visited them, it was several years since high school. I had a better grasp on Spanish and we spoke primarily in Spanish (in high school it was mostly English). It took effort on both sides, but sharing the language did remove a certain barrier that at times was a lot of fun and intriguing while at other times, frustrating.

    I agree with Adams that language has significant implications for culture and heritage in that it can be a key to opening those cross cultural doors. At the same time, I think I personally value inclusiveness on the level of wanting to connect to other people who are looking for that human connection more than “in-group” belonging. Otherwise, I wonder what that means in the U.S. We are a melting pot and while English is of course widely spoken and could arguably carry its own cultural significance, we also have several citizens who speak multiple languages and English is not always their first language. Knowing another language implicitly carries meaning for a culture of people, but so does stepping outside recognizing and affirming “different” ways of living. I wonder what the cost of social belonging is at the same time that I recognize it’s something we often aim for when living abroad or learning another language because it removes the barriers that keep us from the level plane of discussion. Fascinating topic and ideas!

  2. I agree, Erin, I think that there is definitely still that sense of looking for a connection that is more than just people wanting to belong. I think that in any culture there is this in-group of people who have grown up in the country, or even a town, and there are people who aren’t from your town or country. In my hometown, we knew who the outsiders were and it took a really long time for them to finally be a part of the group of people who grew up there. Even if we really liked them, they were always stuck in the group of people who weren’t born and raised in the town like the rest of us.

    Also, I know when I studied abroad all I wanted was not to be viewed as just another study abroad student, I really wanted to try to separate myself from those stereotypes and try to embrace the culture and act like I belonged. While I’m pretty sure I was not really successful in it, most of the people I came into contact with appreciated the effort. But I agree that it definitely is frustrating, especially when there are such strong stereotypes associated with study abroad students and it’s hard to dispel them.

  3. I think that in many respects a person can still know a language and be completely excluded from a group. I think it does depend on many different factors, but for most people the small nuances of language are very difficult to pick up. An old boyfriend of mine had been learning English since he was a small child and spoke it very well, but the cultural things, and the humor were still really hard for him. He would always try to make jokes and no one would really get what he was trying to do, or else they just wouldn’t be funny at all. In this respect language can be a huge dividing factor in inclusion or exclusion. However I also think that there are some even stronger ones that people can’t really help such as religion, dietary habits, etc. Some things you just are and are going to be excluded or included because of them.

    To me I see language as just many defining pieces of inclusion or exclusion. I think global media tries to water these down by introducing more cultural inclusionary points that are dependent on innate characteristics. People who love the show Glee, no matter where they live or the language they speak have this in common and can feel included because of it. Media creates a million small inclusion and exclusion points, that water down the effects of the larger categories.

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