The Coastal Post - January, 1996

Save Spanish From English


Having spent nine months or so in South America over the past five years, I have had many opportunities to observe and reflect upon the languages that unite and divide Americans from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

Many speakers of American English are upset and concerned over the threat posed by the great number of Spanish-speaking immigrants who, unlike previous arrivals, seem less willing to give up their native tongue, when they can easily get English on TV and radio. This has fostered an English-only movement which seems at times unrealistically defensive, in the manner of our northern neighbors, the French-speaking people of Quebec, whose antique French has survived and surfaced after 20 years of marginality.

It is hard to tell what is going on in Brazil, since whatever problems these people have they sing beautiful songs about them.

Spanish-speaking South Americans are (with good reason) concerned over the invasion of American English words into common everyday speech and popular culture. And here I am not talking about the "Spanglish" spoken so deliberately by so many Chicanos and Newyoricans.

Just glancing at any newspaper, one is struck with the dominance of English vocabulary in anything having to do with entertainment, the sciences, business and especially computers.

During my latest trip, to freezing southern Patagonia, I took along my laptop, which freaked out on the local version of 220 volt electricity. I was lucky enough to find a wonderful electronics engineer who had spent a good part of his life fixing TVs, microwave ovens, VCRs and other electronic gadgets. I was amazed how well I could communicate, nerd-wise, with just a little effort.

My problem was "el RAM chip" (RAHM cheep), and later, "el disco duro" (hard disk). I was surprised to learn that just about "todo el software" used was in English, although pronounced with a Spanish flair. It is hard to believe that all the software loaded into IBM (ee-bay-em-me) and Apple (AP-ley) computers is the same English-language software and multi-media titles sold in the USA.

It is hard to imagine how "English only" critics might react if the only software they could buy was in another language. The South Americans gobble it up. They seem to know quite well which way the technological wind is blowing. In Peru, for example, I used to see young men and women lining up at 8 am in front of private schools on the weekend (wiken) to learn the secrets of DOS and Windows (not "ventanas").

Of course, North American pop music (which is to say African-American music) is everywhere except perhaps the Andes mountains of Peru, where you constantly hear ear-splitting Quechua dance music. North American clothing is not just stylish, but the only style! It is so strange to go into a small village and see teenage boys with Chicago Bulls shirts and hats (unbelievably popular) and girls with Calvin Klein polos. When one occasionally actually sees someone in authentic Gaucho or Huaso costume in rural Patagonia, you get the impression these oddities are going to a costume party, which of course they aren't.

I noticed a sign in a small town: "Las mountain bikes más preferidas" next to signs for "Yupie boy" and "Pronto shake." This last example is exceptionally interesting in that the "pronto' probably came into English some time ago via Tex Mex, got attached to "shake" and hybridized, made the trip back into Spanish. It is hard to know which language needs protection more from whom!

I read an article about a cheap, effective Chilean rocket being manufactured in the UK, which would be sold in "multi-pack." I didn't see, or hear "six-pack" but it can't be too far off considering the interest in "el marketing" and "el marketing directo." I saw a huge advertisement "Desafios [challenges] en fund raising."

The list goes on and on, but my favorite is "rolón" for truck ferry. This looks like perfectly good Castillian, but is actually an adaptation of the British "roll-on, roll-off" or roro ferries that are always capsizing in the North Sea.

The world keeps getting smaller and speeding up. Some languages and peoples are taking flight into cyberspace, while others are going underground or retreating into burrows and shells. It's natural, I suppose.