Green Fire Times

Bilingualism and the Linguistic Landscape of Northern NM

Bilingualism, or code-switching, is common among nearly half of New Mexicans

By Alejandro López

Although nearly half of New Mexicans may be considered to be monolingual English speakers, there are entire, exceedingly large communities of native New Mexican speakers who simultaneously have a command of English as well as their native language, be it Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, Keres, Zuni, Navajo, Apache or Spanish. A great many other individuals, though not totally fluent in even one language, also communicate through code-switching, a free-flowing movement from one language to another.

Code-switching between two or more languages is yet another manifestation of bilingualism. In some ways, code-switching is its own language in which the speaker, be it an elder or a tiny tot, feels an almost equal tug from two prevailing languages—English and their own. It could also be an adult communicating with other adults for whom the two languages hold nearly the same degree of importance.

The people who tend to speak in this manner, at times follow loosely established patterns, but in most cases, it seems to be an almost haphazard, spontaneous, and often endearing mixture. Although code-switching has been looked down upon by some, it can be quite effective. This is especially true in cases where native-language-dominant grandparents are confronted with the need to speak with their English-dominant grandchildren.  

Code-switching—which I inadvertently resort to at times—reflects the haphazard and chaotic process wrought by the demographic, economic and cultural imposition that has been taking place in New Mexico for centuries. The, at times, corrosive processes of forced assimilation, marked by “double conquest and colonialism,” to use the words of writer/anthropologist Thomas Guthrie, have inadvertently altered and overturned nearly every aspect of New Mexican indigenous life. The radical reshaping of the language of one people by their interaction with another is among the most endemic to be felt in a multicultural, multilingual setting such as New Mexico. The presence of a good many words of Spanish origin in the indigenous languages of New Mexico attests to that.

Yet other people who have grown up in New Mexico’s complex multicultural world are trilingual and can move effortlessly from a native indigenous language to Spanish and English (or between more than one language), as in the case of a friend of mine, a highly-functioning, contemporary young man who is both Native American and Méxicano. In the past there were many more multilingual people, but in recent years both Native American languages and the Méxicano language indigenous to New Mexico, despite being taught in schools, have lost ground in the face of the gargantuan power English wields (around the world).

The influx of people from México has created a whole new community of would-be bilingual speakers. In many instances these people accomplish this brilliantly and competently. Other times, especially when feeling shame or intimidation, individuals refrain from venturing out beyond their own linguistic and cultural community. Nevertheless, the relatively recent arrivals from México, other parts of Latin America and even Spain have infused the once rapidly disappearing Méxicano or New Mexican Spanish with vitality and viability. Curiously, only Méxicano/Spanish from among the indigenous languages of New Mexico enjoys a parity with English in legal and governmental matters, a provision guaranteed by law. As a result, New Mexico is the only officially bilingual state in the union.

Of course, there are also multitudes of people that migrated here during the last halfcentury, when New Mexico became an international destination. Hence, one can hear German, Tagalog, Hindi, Tibetan and many other languages spoken in public spaces.

In New Mexico there are also those who grew up speaking English and who later, out of interest or a desire to break out of the mindset of exclusively English speakers, learned another language (usually Spanish, Navajo or Tewa), often through a combination of workplace involvement, study and travel. Carrying on a conversation with such speakers can be a bit of a challenge, as they may be quite familiar with the language but not necessarily with the realities of native-born speakers. The late bilingual writer, Jim Sagel, learned Méxicano well enough to write in it, through marriage into an Española Indo-Hispano family.

Unbeknownst to many monolingual English speakers, the social, cultural and psychic life of the bilingual or multilingual person is significantly different from his/her own. In general, the speaker of more than one language in New Mexico faces many more challenges and demands than the all-too-complacent monolingual speaker of English whose linguistic needs are catered to by all official state institutions. The bilingual speaker’s experience of his fellow human beings and of the world in general tends to be richer, more varied, more accommodating and more nuanced.  

Those people tend to see the world “in the round” rather than unidimensional. They tend to allow for many other possibilities for cultural, linguistic and psychic expression rather than the conventional linear way of communication that monolingualism in a pluralistic society seems to insist upon. But it can work the other way around too. People whose native language has been stripped away or who may still have it within them but are bound up in shame, may become intolerant of those (even from within their own community) who continue to speak the native language or who do not speak English at all.

First and foremost, native speakers of regional indigenous languages including Méxicano/Spanish and perhaps others must contend with paying respect and maintaining communication with their elders, who until recently, were non-English speakers. At the same time, they must work to assimilate the language that permits them to ply their knowledge and skills in the marketplace.  

Not only does the bilingual person attempt to maintain a dual inheritance that includes language, culture and oftentimes land, water and sovereignty; he/she is also forced to cultivate a mainly intuitive understanding of how and when to give full throttle to the varied multicultural ways of communication that have taken root in his her/being as a result of living simultaneously in two or more worlds. He/she must also learn where, when and how to contain those same expressions, lest he /she be the object of intolerance or derision in the dominant society.

In many cases, this is a particularly trying and perplexing endeavor, especially for the young person, or the person new to North American English-speaking culture. For people making the transition from one language and culture to another while attempting to hold onto their original language and culture, few reliable roadmaps exist. Some attempt a safe, “middle of the road” approach to harboring this complexity, while there are those, especially orators, singers, poets, writers and political or cultural activists, who use the full range of a bilingual palette to express the complexity of our current multicultural realities and their challenges.  

In New Mexico it is the willingness and ability to accommodate other people’s linguistic and cultural realities and experiences that also tends to distinguish the multilingual person. For the bilingual person, to come across a person who does not speak his/her languages well or at all, is often but a source of interest, pleasure, or novelty. Rarely, is it a source of any tension, irritation or frustration. The bilingual person is usually highly practiced in broaching communication with others in many different forms. This approach usually fosters a willingness to identify with the problems and issues of other people, especially those who find themselves in difficult circumstances, such as our parents may have found themselves when they were unable to speak or maneuver adequately through the English-speaking world.

An agility of mind also arises from the fact that different languages define the world in different ways. Therefore, the speaker of more than one language is oftentimes challenged to incorporate various understandings and interpretations of the world and to remain flexible about the nature of the world itself. Recently an English student of mine from México was puzzled by the fact that the “thou” equivalent of usted had pretty much been retired from the English language. She was incredulous by the revelation that everyone—from a beloved grandparent to a tiny tot —was addressed in the same way with the personal pronoun you. That is not the case in the Spanish-speaking world where the informal  and the formal usted are still very much in use and where each of the two words envelop the person being addressed with a distinct and often contrasting aura of either familiarity or more distant reverence and respect.  

Spanish’s long sonorous words fire up the senses as opposed to English’s preference for monosyllabic utterances in which the lips hardly move. While one conjures up echoes carrying across the mountain valleys of New Mexico, Latin America or Spain, the other brings to mind the lapping of waters that encircle the British Isles and the East Coast of the United States. These peculiarities cause significant differences in the way the two are experienced.

Are the languages of New Mexico speaking to each other or are they bypassing and ignoring the others’ presence? Perhaps speaking languages other than our own may keep us all from according our particular worldview and language a sense of absolutism and engender a greater sense of “give-and-take” in an increasingly complex world.

Alejandro López, writer, educator and photographer, grew up in a bilingual household in northern New Mexico. He is a teacher of English as a Second Language, and also Spanish.