The Perception of Language in Countries of Migration

Picture Source: Etsy

Inspired by author Olga Grjasnowa’s talk on “Die Macht der Mehrsprachigkeit” and by Prof. Deniz Göktürk’s German and American Studies course on “Cultures of Migration,” L.A. native Emily Yepez (Berkeley Freshman, Chemical Biology major) reflects on her own experience with multilingualism as a Mexican American and critiques how the connection between native language and racial identity conditions one’s senses of belonging in the United States and Germany.

“No sabo” is a grammatically incorrect way of saying “no sé” or “I don’t know.”  This is a common response many children of Latino migrants have when asked a question in Spanish. A simple grammar mistake like “no sabo” often indicates the abandonment of their Spanish. In the United States, the frequent use of the phrase has created a stereotype: a “no sabo kid” is a Latino child who no longer has, or never had, a grasp on the Spanish language. When I was ten years old, I remember speaking at the dinner table with my mother in English. My father, who could not understand, grew frustrated and when asked to speak in Spanish, I turned to my mother and asked, “can you translate?” This was the moment both my parents realized that I was abandoning my Mexican roots. I was becoming a “no sabo” child and they were greatly disappointed. My parents decided to send me to Mexico on my own for two summers to relearn the language and culture that I had lost. However, to many Latino parents, becoming a “no sabo” child is not an issue because it is a sign of becoming a “true” American.

In my family, specifically those living in the United States, most in my generation have lost or are losing their Spanish, a language that was our first. Their parents, who cannot speak English themselves, allow for this to happen because they believe emphasizing Spanish will reduce their children’s “American-ness.” Speaking perfect English is preferred over speaking both English and Spanish relatively well; the less Latino they are, the more American they will be. Being bilingual does not fit with the American model of monolingualism which stems from the statement Latino migrants routinely hear: “Speak English, you’re in America.” Migrant parents who struggle to find their place in the United States do not want their children to suffer the same loss. 

Author Olga Grjasnowa describes her similar experiences as an immigrant who was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and later emigrated to Hesse, Germany. Translated by Ambika Athreya, Grjasnowa states “…integration is always measured by knowledge of the German language. Someone who appears not to have a command of the German language does not belong here…” (The Power of Multilingualism, 2021, para. 9). This distinction between who is native and who is foreign hinges on how well one speaks. Grjasnowa mentions an article on parenting by Sabine Rennefanz, then editor-in-chief of the Berliner Zeitung,  that features a Turkish boy named Özcan who arrived at a birthday party in Berlin dressed in full gear to support the German national soccer team (para. 7). Özcan attempted to present himself in the most German way he could. However, the strategy failed as the author of the article then questioned the child’s German skills because he learned the language at daycare instead of at home like his peers. Native Germans often regard children who have bilingual or multilingual backgrounds as having an inherent deficiency. Although he was born in Berlin, Özcan is not accepted by German society as fully German, just as my family fears American society will not accept my cousins as fully American. Hence, many people in the Latino-American community choose to not pass down the Spanish language to the next generation in fear of their children not being perceived as “American enough.” 

Although the Spanish language itself is not inferior to English, xenophobic ideologies against those who speak Spanish have created an environment where English is preferred in the United States. During the Zoom conversation on “The Power of Multilingualism” (2021) in the series “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News,” Grjasnowa emphasized how she does not believe there is a specific ranking of languages spoken in countries of migration but rather there is hierarchy determined on the speaker’s background. Racism and class discrimination impact the way people are perceived. For instance, a migrant from Spain and a migrant from Mexico will be received differently in the United States, even though they speak the same language. Spain, a European country, is linked closer to whiteness, which is considered ideal in a nation like the United States. On the other hand, Mexico has a population with a mixture of racial backgrounds (Black, White, Asian, and Indigenous). Thus, Mexican migrants are more likely to have a difficult time finding their place or sense of belonging in American society. 

In Grjasnowa’s “Privileges” (translated by Allison Garcia), she explains how as a white woman she is not perceived as foreign because foreigners “have thick, black hair…trouble integrating; they harass women; spend their days overzealous in their religion; are uneducated…” (2020, para. 2). As previously mentioned, race and class play a role in who is unwanted or considered an outsider. Growing up, I witnessed the difference in the treatment of my parents by the public. My father is extremely pale in comparison to my mother, a woman of color with thick curly hair. Although my father does not speak any English, my mother migrated to the United States when she was nine years old and thus speaks both English and Spanish. However, waiters, cashiers, receptionists, and others immediately address my father in English while attempting to speak to my mother in broken Spanish. Many also choose to lower their level of vocabulary in English or use hand gestures to aid my mother in understanding the conversation. Labels are placed on my parents, who are migrants of the same country, before they even speak. Their difference in skin color dictates how they are perceived; to the public, my father is clearly an American because he is white and my mother is an immigrant who cannot speak or comprehend English. Ironically, my mother has a doctoral degree in education and has no trouble writing or speaking in English. My father’s education ended after his completion of high school in Mexico, and all the English he learned in school was “can I go to the bathroom?” With that being said, being identified as American has everything to do with race. 

A specific racial identity and language point towards being a “true” American: white and English respectively. Grjasnowa makes the same argument for Germany, another country of migration; in her case, the preferred language spoken is German and the preferred race is still white. Assimilation of migrant families has left many abandoning their native tongue. “No sabo” children are a footprint of this change. The monolingualization of children in multilingual households has become the path of choice for many migrants. As a child of Mexican-born parents, there are moments where I find myself stumbling on my words in Spanish; I have to put in the effort to hold on to my first language because using English over Spanish in America becomes easier as I get older. Additionally, the experiences of migrants and their families are dependant on the racism, classism, and xenophobia they face. My parents had vastly different experiences in America due to their difference in race. The United States is not a homogenous society, yet migrants face societal pressures that say otherwise because homogeneous values are still deeply rooted in America. 

Works Cited

Grjasnowa, Olga, and Allison Garcia. (2020). Privileges. TRANSIT, 12(2). http://dx.doi.org/10.5070/ T7122047482

Grjasnowa, Olga. (2021). “The Power of Multilingualism” from the “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News.” https://youtu.be/eA551UfIIJw

Grjasnowa, Olga. (2021). Die Macht der Mehrsprachigkeit: Über Herkunft und Vielfalt. Duden. 

Grjasnowa, Olga, and Ambika Athreya. The Power of Multilingualism. Translated excerpts (unpublished), n.d.

About Qingyang Freya Zhou

Qingyang Freya Zhou is a PhD candidate in German Studies at UC Berkeley. She researches on the intersections of German-Asian cultures, particularly as they pertain to the cinematic entanglements among Germany, China, and Korea.
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