Ellen Johnson

Berry College

Can Southerners Learn Spanish?

Americans often don’t think of English speakers as being able to learn another language fluently. In a survey I conducted of businesses in a Georgia county (Whitfield) whose population is estimated to be fifty percent Hispanic, I found that most bilinguals, as expected, are native Spanish speakers rather than native English speakers. One survey respondent said that their business had thought about having employees take Spanish classes but their (Appalachian) dialect made it harder for them and so it was easier to hire Spanish speakers and teach them English! The implication here is that if working class whites can’t even speak English properly, how can they be expected to learn another language? It is certain that the Hispanic bilinguals in town don’t all speak prestigious varieties of Spanish. While this doesn’t hold them back from learning English, lower literacy rates can partly explain why they are the ones expected to learn another language.

The generally lower levels of education and income of Hispanics in the community, coupled with the legitimization of English as the language of the nation-state and the language of modernity creates a wide gap in prestige between Spanish and English in the community (May 2001). Spanish and Spanish-accented English are subordinated to Standard English (Lippi-Green 1997), perhaps even more so than the stigmatized Appalachian and African American varieties. It is not at all uncommon in language contact situations for speakers of the higher status language to refuse to learn the lower status language. On the other hand, it is common for the speakers of the lower status language to eagerly adopt the higher status language. Thus, the fact that more native speakers of Spanish have become bilingual than native speakers of English in Dalton is not surprising. Given the typical scenario for minority language communities in relation to the socially and economically more powerful group, it is rather a pleasant surprise to find so many English speakers learning Spanish there.

This paper will present evidence from two surveys on current levels of bilingualism: a survey of 100 businesses that belong to the Chamber of Commerce and a survey of 500 social service agencies in the region (Johnson and Boyle, fc). The survey results are supplemented by interviews of native English speakers who are long-term residents of the county about their experiences with and attitudes toward Spanish speakers. In a paradoxical twist, it would appear that those who profess the most positive attitude toward Spanish (the area’s elite) are actually the least likely to learn the language, while the people who have achieved a basic level of communicative competence are often those with more ambivalent attitudes. Like Americans everywhere, Southerners believe that immigrants should learn English quickly, but that learning a language other than English is far too difficult to be achieved by the ordinary person. Despite such beliefs, Southerners are indeed learning Spanish.

Johnson, Ellen, and David Boyle. (under review) Learning Spanish in the North Georgia Mountains. In Language Variation and
    Change in the American Midland: A New Look at "Heartland" English, ed. by Thomas E. Murray and Beth Lee Simon.
    Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. London:
May, Stephen. 2001. Language and Minority Rights: Ethnicity, Nationalism and the Politics of Language. New York: Longman.