Sunday, April 3, 2011

Speak in Spanish, Think in English

I'm used to researchers on bilingualism wearing blinkers and ignoring translation. Even so, when I saw the title of a new book, Bilingual Youth: Spanish in English-speaking Societies, and what's more edited by two Americans, I had hope that it would at least mention the well-documented phenomenon of language brokering, which, in the United States, typically takes place between Spanish-speaking children and adolescents and the English-speaking society surrounding their immigrant families. (For more about it on this blog, enter brokering in the Search box at the top of the right-hand column.)

Not so. Neither translation nor language brokering figures in the quite thorough index. Even Guadalupe Valdés (see photo), who has elsewhere edited a book on language brokering (see References), and whose family casebook study of bilingual language acquisition in the present volume makes a very interesting story, doesn't mention them.

Disappointing, to say the least.

On the other hand, Valdés reproduces some of her raw data in the form of transcriptions of conversations between her (I) and one of her subjects, Marisa (M), a latina American child who was about 10 years old. There I found the following nugget:
I: eres tú eres bilingüe, te sientes tú que eres bilingüe?
M: no completamente.
I: no completamente, qué sería ser completamente bilingüe?
M: ah no... sí hablo en español pero no pienso en español, pienso en inglés.
I: ah::
M: y si podiera pensar en español e inglés, podía ser bilingüe.

[Are you bilingual? Do you feel you're bilingual?
Not completely.
Not completely. What would it be like to be completely bilingual?
I do speak in Spanish, but I don't think in Spanish. I think in English.
And if only I could think in Spanish, I could be bilingual.]
What does it mean, to speak in one language but to think in another? I can conceive of two primary explanations. The first is to compose the message in language A, silently and to oneself, and then translate it to language B for utterance. A common process that usually causes some 'interference'. The second is to speak in language B but to think in a way that is typical of members of the speech community of language A. Probably Marisa meant the latter. It's not what is usually meant by translation, but a reader's letter in the current issue of The Linguist calls it cultural translation and gives amusing examples (see References).

There are also possible combinations and amalgams of the two processes, linguistic and cultural. Linguists have long discussed whether our languages affect the way we perceive the world, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity.

In any case, 10-year-old Marisa's interesting definition of complete bilingualism exhibits a high degree of metalinguistic awareness.

Kim Potowski and Jason Rothman (eds.) Bilingual Youth: Spanish in English-Speaking Societies. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2010. Benjamins has generously made most of it available through Google Books at

Guadalupe Valdés. Ethnolinguistic identity: the challenge of maintaining Spanish-English bilingualism in American schools. In the above Potowski and Rothman book, pp. 113-148.

Guadalupe Valdés (ed.). Expanding Definitions of Giftedness: The Case of Young Interpreters from Immigrant Communities. Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum. 2003.

Michael Mould. En route to cultural translation. The Linguist (CIOL, London), April/May 2011, p.26.

Linguistic relativity. Wikipedia.,

Metalinguistic awareness: conscious awareness of language processes, especially the ones going on in our own minds.


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