Latino Americans Blog

I’m with the 16 percent

September 5, 2013 8:34 PM by Ingrid Rojas

In 2012, Pew Hispanic asked the question, “When you think, is it mostly in Spanish or in English?” The answers varied across generations as one might imagine: third generation responders said they mostly think in English, while first generation responders (immigrants) said they mostly think in Spanish. Only 16 percent said they think in both languages.

The survey didn’t go on to specify how exactly this 16 percent thinks in both languages: is it in a Spanglish kind of way, switching words between languages within the same thought? Or is it that one thought comes in one language and then another thought comes in the other? How do we even know which language we’re thinking in unless we’re really thinking about it? They might as well have asked which language we dream in, because I really don’t know.
Ingrid RojasIn 2012, Pew Hispanic asked the question, “When you think, is it mostly in Spanish or in English?” The answers varied across generations as one might imagine: third generation responders said they mostly think in English, while first generation responders (immigrants) said they mostly think in Spanish. Only 16 percent said they think in both languages.

The survey didn’t go on to specify how exactly this 16 percent thinks in both languages: is it in a Spanglish kind of way, switching words between languages within the same thought? Or is it that one thought comes in one language and then another thought comes in the other? How do we even know which language we’re thinking in unless we’re really thinking about it? They might as well have asked which language we dream in, because I really don’t know.

Pinning down the inner processes of Latinos is actually besides the survey’s larger, more important point about Latinos’ views on their own identity, but the abstract quality of that question captured my imagination. The survey asks mostly pragmatic questions like “Do you prefer the term Hispanic or Latino?” or “When you watch TV is it mostly in Spanish or in English?”

If I was one of the responders, I probably would’ve answered the “thinking” question in a really annoying, round-about way. As a textbook first generation immigrant, I’m with that 16 percent.

I think in both languages, not in the Spanglish kind of way, but in the alternating kind of way. Mine is still a one-track-brain when it comes to language. If I’m conversing with, say, my parents in Spanish, most likely I will continue to think in Spanish after the conversation is over, but if I’m at work, speaking in English, I will most likely continue to think in English as conversations reverberate in my head. When I’m alone though, say walking mindlessly, I guess I default to Spanish.

Even though soon it’s going to be 20th anniversary since I arrived in the US, I’ve never been good at Spanglish, neither in thought nor in conversation, unlike so many other bicultural, bilingual Latinos in the US.

I moved to Texas for college when I was 18, fresh out of high school in Colombia where I grew up. Like many upper-middle class kids in Bogota, I took English classes throughout high school, reinforced with a heavy dose of American cultural influence from TV, music and movies, but nothing prepared me for the language mish-mash in Texas.

My college dorm roommate Crystal, a die-hard Dallas Cowboys and Selena fan, first introduced me to the fine art of Spanglish. She would start speaking in Spanish, then with the same momentum she’d switch again to English, causing the equivalent of a seizure in my inflexible brain.

After college, I moved to New York City where I met many second generation Latinos who spoke Spanglish like the third language of a selective club I wasn’t a member of. When I expressed my difficulty keeping up with Spanglish, my friends were actually surprised at my verbal rigidity.

I tried sticking to one language during Spanglish-infused conversations, but then I felt like I was either ditching my first language or like I couldn’t speak English, or simply like I wasn’t part of that conversation.

Even though we have an underlying shared culture and heritage, our upbringings were quite different. After all, I grew up in a Spanish-speaking country, while they grew up in a bilingual culture. 

Now I live in Miami and work among many first generation Latinos who share my language challenges. I also work with many second and third generation Latinos who speak to me in Spanglish and I respond in my iffy Spanglish to follow along, but mostly I stick to one language.

I guess I have the linguistic challenges of a first generation immigrant (I still speak English with a Spanish accent, which will probably never go away) but I have the tastes of a second generation Latino (I get my news and information in English, for example).

I’ve adapted to a bilingual culture precisely by keeping both languages separate, simply because they refuse to compromise and blend in my brain.

So I am with the 16 percent of Latinos that say they think in both languages, but as with many statistics, that duality is a bit more complex.


Ingrid Rojas is a multimedia producer at Fusion, the new joint venture of ABC News and Univision, where she produces, shoots and edits original content for the web. She's a graduate of Columbia University's Journalism School and has previously worked as an associate producer on Bill Moyers Journal and various History Channel and PBS documentaries. She's based in Miami.
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