You are here

Negotiating Bilingual Space

May 4, 2016

Courtney Fields (BA 2015) originally planned to major in English because she loved to read. But freshman year she decided to double major in anthropology and English, because she realized her love for literature stemmed from how it “opened her up to different worlds and different cultures.”

Her love for exploring different cultures started early—best exemplified by the hundreds of travel stories she has to share. Most notably, she spent an entire year in Spain as an exchange student through Rotary International before attending the University of Minnesota. While in Spain, Fields practiced and further developed her comprehension and ability to speak Spanish. When Fields returned home, she began to notice that bilingual individuals switched languages depending on where they were and to whom they were speaking.

Fields's experiences oriented her toward english and anthropology majors, specifically, linguistic anthropology. “I took Language, Culture, and Power with Professor Valentine and I loved it so much.” Inspired by her coursework and previous experiences abroad, Fields began taking note of how Latino and white Americans spoke to each other in the restaurants she worked in. “I was interested in how they negotiated speaking Spanish and English in these kinds of spaces,” Fields says.

With the guidance of Professor Valentine and through skills she has gained from her coursework, Fields began to research these themes for her honors thesis project: how language switching is tied to respectability, politics, and inter-community issues regarding bilingualism.

She determined that people do not only “code” switch but “language” switch. Codeswitching is usually defined by people switching only a part of a sentence into Spanish. But Fields observed that when people are speaking only only Spanish, they will suddenly switch into English when a white person enters the conversation. Likewise, if someone is speaking English normally they might switch to Spanish when they are talking to a Latino worker. This language switching leads to linguistic discrimination, because people who don’t speak English natively will feel forced to switch over to accommodate white people. Alternatively, it also leads to linguistic stereotyping on the basis of race, where Latinos may be expected to speak Spanish with other Spanish speakers.

Next fall, Fields is looking forward to exploring even more of the world. She has recently planned a year long trip to South America to explore how language is negotiated at hostels and eco-tourism sites in different Spanish-speaking countries. She plans to record her experiences with different cultures at these sites in a travel blog. Through her blog, Fields also aims to help other people explore new cultures by sharing tips and tricks from her own adventures: “My goal is to get people to realize just how small the world really is and to trust that they are capable of exploring it by themselves.”

Check out her travel blog

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.