The Mayor’s speech

The spectacle of two bilingual Presidential candidates arguing in Spanish last week reminded me of the Twitter feed, “Miguel Bloombito,” created by Rachel Figueroa-Levin to mock our former Mayor’s Spanish for the amusement of her friends. I may be coming late to the party here, but Bloombito is still tweeting, and was recently mentioned by one of my fellow linguists. If Bloomberg runs for President we can probably expect to hear more from El Bloombito, so it’s not too late to say how dismayed I was by this parody as a linguist, as a language teacher, as a non-native Spanish speaker and as a New Yorker.

If Bloombito were simply a fun, jokey phenomenon, punching up at a privileged white billionaire who needs no defending, I wouldn’t spend time on it. But the context is not as simple as that. Figueroa-Levin’s judgment is linguistically naive, and rests on a confusion of pronunciation with overall competence, and an implied critique of language learning that sets the bar so high that most of the world’s population can never meet it.

Figueroa-Levin says that, “I think he’s just reading something on a card,” and maybe he does that with Spanish in the same contexts as with English, but that is not all there is to his Spanish. As reporter Juan Manuel Benítez told the New York Times, “the mayor’s Spanish is a lot better than a lot of people really think it is.”

Unsurprisingly, then, the tweets of El Bloombito do not actually resemble the Mayor’s Spanish very much at all. Instead they are a caricature of bad Spanish, with bad morphology and syntax, and lots of English mixed in. Linguists actually agree that mixing two languages is generally a sign of competence in both languages, and New York Spanish has several English borrowings that are absolutely standard. In contrast, the fictional Bloombito mixes them in ways that no real speaker does, like adding Spanish gender markers to every English noun.

For years now, as the population of native Spanish speakers has grown, politicians have made an effort to speak the language in public. With President George W. Bush and Governor George Pataki, Spanish seemed mostly symbolic. But Bloomberg seems to have taken more seriously the fact that twenty percent of the city’s population speaks Spanish at home.

The most noticeable feature of the actual Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish is a very strong American accent. He has no real success in pronouncing sounds that are specific to Spanish, like the flapped /r/ or the pure /o/, substituting sounds from his Boston/New York English. But in addition, when he says a Spanish word that has an English cognate his pronunciation tends to sound closer to the English word, giving the impression that he is using more English words than he really is.

There are ways of rendering these mispronunciations into Spanish, but Figueroa-Levin does not use them in her parody, probably because her audience doesn’t know Spanish well enough to get the joke. She also confuses accent for overall competence in the language. But if you listen beyond his accent, Bloomberg displays a reasonable degree of competence in Spanish. He often reads from prepared remarks, as with English, but he is able to speak extemporaneously in Spanish. In particular, he is able to understand fairly complex questions and give thoughtful responses to them on the spot, as in this discussion of the confirmation of Justice Sotomayor:

The bottom line is that, as Bloomberg said in the first clip, “Es difícil para aprender un nuevo idioma.” My experience teaching ESL and French has confirmed that. No adult, especially not a man in his sixties, is going to achieve nativelike fluency. But we can achieve the kind of mastery that Bloomberg has. And this city runs on the work of millions of people who speak English less well than Bloomberg speaks Spanish, but still manage to get things done.

In fact, before Bloombito I used clips of Mayor Bloomberg to reassure my ESL students that they could still function in a foreign language and be respected, even with a thick accent. After Bloombito I can no longer give them that assurance.

In the Salon interview Figueroa-Levin makes the argument that this kind of language work is best left to professionals, as Bloomberg did with American Sign Language, for example, and that Bloomberg was doing his Spanish-speaking constituents a disservice by speaking it imperfectly. I have made similar arguments regarding interpreters and translators. But speaking to the media and constituents in a foreign language is nowhere near as difficult as interpreting, and does not need to be professionalized. I’m sure the Mayor always had fluent Spanish speaking staffers nearby to fall back on as well.

What I find particularly disturbing about Miguel Bloombito is the symbolism. For centuries in this country speakers of other languages, particularly Spanish, have been expected to speak English in addition to whatever else they are trying to do (work, advocacy, civic participation). English has been associated with power, Spanish with subjugation.

Figueroa-Levin told Salon, “You get this sense that he thinks we should be honored that he would even attempt to speak Spanish.” What she gets wrong is that this is not just an empty gesture, like memorizing a few words. Here we have a native English speaker, one of the most powerful people in the country, who puts in significant time and effort every day to learn Spanish, and people mock him for it. It’s like if someone saw the Pope washing the feet of homeless people, criticized him on his technique, and told him to let a licensed pedicurist do the job. I could say more, but I’ve run out of polite things to say, so I’ll leave the last word to Carlos Culerio, the man on the street interviewed in the first clip above:

“I feel especially proud, as a Dominican, that Mayor Bloomberg speaks Spanish. It’s a matter of pride for us as Hispanics.”

Describing differences in pronunciation

Last month I wrote that instead of only two levels of phonetic transcription, “broad” and “narrow,” what people do in practice is to adjust their level of detail according to the point they want to make. In this it is like any other form of communication: too much detail can be a distraction.

comparing transcription

But how do we decide how much detail to put in a given transcription, and how can we teach this to our students? In my experience there is always some kind of comparison. Maybe we’re comparing two speakers from different times or different regions, ethnicities, first languages, social classes, anatomies. Maybe we’re comparing two utterances by the same person in different phonetic, semantic, social or emotional contexts.

Sometimes there is no overt comparison, but at those times there is almost always an implicit comparison. If we are presenting a particular pronunciation it is because we assume our readers will find it interesting, because it is pathological or nonstandard. This implies that there is a normal or standard pronunciation that we have in our heads to contrast it to.

The existence of this comparison tells us the right level of detail to include in our transcriptions: enough to show the contrasts that we are describing, maybe a little more, but not so much to distract from this contrast. And we want to focus on that contrast, so we will include details about tone, place of articulation or laryngeal timing, and leave out details about nasality, vowel tongue height or segment length.

This has implications for the way we teach transcription. For our students to learn the proper level of detail to include, they need practice comparing two pronunciations, transcribing both, and checking whether their transcriptions highlight the differences that they feel are most relevant to the current discussion.

I can illustrate this with a cautionary tale from my teaching just this past semester. I had found this approach of identifying differences to be useful, but students found the initial assignments overwhelming. Even as I was jotting down an early draft of this blog post, I just told my students to transcribe a single speech sample. I put off comparison assignments for later, and then put them off again.

As a result, I found myself focusing too much on some details while dismissing others. I could sense that my students were a bit frustrated, but I didn’t make the connection right away. I did ask them to compare two pronunciations on the final exam, and it went well, but not as well as it could have if they had been practicing it all semester. Overall the semester was a success, but it could have been better.

I’ll talk about how you can find comparable pronunciations in a future post.

Choose your Own Speech Role Model

In a couple of recent posts I talked about the idea of speech role models for language learning, specifically on fluent, clear non-native speakers providing more accessible models for students learning after the teenage years. I ended with a caution against “cloning” a single non-native speaker, raising the specter of a class of students who all come out speaking English like Javier Bardem. I believe this can be avoided by giving students a greater range of options for role models, and a greater role in choosing them.

Yao Ming. Photo: Jeff Balke / Flickr.

Yao Ming. Photo: Jeff Balke / Flickr.

Again, I can speak from personal experience in this area. As a second-language learner of French and later Portuguese I chose a variety of speech role models. No one has ever said I sound like Jacques Dutronc or Karl Zéro when speaking French, but I was motivated to reach for those goals because I believed I could sound kind of like them.

Thinking back on my speech role models for French, and even for my native English, it was clear that my unique voice is a result of having a diversity of speech role models, and my comfort with my voice was due to the fact that I had chosen all those role models. I sound like me because I sound like a combination of several people that I have admired over the years.

As language teachers, we owe it to our students not to turn them into Javier Bardem clones, or to discourage those who feel like they could never be Bardem. John Murphy’s study of reactions to Bardem is valuable because it establishes that a non-native speaker can be an acceptable role model, but we can’t stop at him, or even at the other fourteen that Murphy lists in his Appendix A.

With sites like YouTube at their fingertips, students have access to millions of non-native English speakers. We need to give them the opportunity to choose several non-native speakers, and be prepared to evaluate those speakers as potential role models, so that they can sound like their unique selves, but speaking clear, fluent English (or French or Hmong or whatever).