I enjoy listening to how bilingual people use language. And if you do as well, I’m recommending to you the work of Oscar Casares, a writer who I learned about while preparing to visit Brownsville, Texas. (Hat tip to skoolboy over at eduwonkette). Mr. Casares, who grew up in Brownsville, is a master in using code-switching in dialogue. Code-switching is what linguists call the switching back and forth between two languages, often mid-sentence, by bilingual speakers when they are talking with people who understand both languages.
In 2003, Mr. Casares published Brownsville Stories, and he’s working on a novel based in South Texas. He also wrote a colorful feature article for Texas Monthly in 2006 about how Porter High School’s soccer team from Brownsville competed against a team from a high school in north Texas. He places the competition into a larger context of the debate over immigration in this country.
I overheard code-switching in stores, restaurants, and on elevators while visiting Brownsville Independent School District for Education Week last week. (Look for the article in a few weeks).
“Pues entonces, I don’t understand,” I heard a woman say. In classes where teachers were presenting lessons in English, they occasionally referred to a student as “mi hijito,” a term of affection in Spanish.
“Pues, entonces let me buy two more de esos smoke bombs,” says a customer at a fireworks stand in a short story, “Mr. Z,” by Mr. Casares. It’s a story about how an 11-year-old boy first learns about the world of work. In other stories, characters who usually speak English switch to Spanish when they are feeling upset. “Parate! Guerco mendigo! Desgraciado! Somebody stop him! Somebody!,” shouts a woman in the short story, “Yolanda,” when she is trying to stop a thief. (Excuse my blog software program for not producing Spanish punctuation marks.)
The stories are about ordinary people and helped me to envision the border city of Brownsville before I got there. They’re a good read.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.