Dear Abby: I am a retired librarian who lives in Texas. I am what around here is called “Anglo,” meaning white and not Hispanic. I speak four languages, with varying degrees of proficiency.
Recently, a friend who is Hispanic told me that if an Anglo speaks Spanish to a Hispanic person, it’s considered an insult because it implies that the Hispanic person is “too stupid” to learn English. I had never heard of this before, so I asked a retired college-level Spanish teacher who is also Anglo. She informed me that Hispanic people use the language difference as a “boundary,” and my speaking Spanish to them was a violation of their boundaries.
It came as a complete shock! This happened more than a month ago, and I’m having a hard time dealing with it. I spent a lifetime developing language skills. I always considered speaking another language to be a sign of respect and friendship. Now I’m being told that it’s insulting and intrusive?
I can’t believe all Hispanic people feel this way, but I don’t know what to do with this information. My next-door neighbors are Spanish-speaking. I’ve always spoken to them in Spanish because it’s what I heard from them when I first met them. Now I don’t know if I’ve been insulting them. What should I do? – In Shock in San Antonio
Dear In Shock: After reading your letter, I polled a focus group of Spanish-speaking friends about it. Some said it didn’t bother them, but the majority explained that the reaction may depend upon how long the family has been in this country. If it has been several generations, the people you are addressing might identify more as English speakers than Spanish speakers, and consider your addressing them in Spanish to be condescending because it implies that you don’t think they have learned English.
So the rule of thumb would be: Assume that everyone speaks English; then if it turns out they don’t, use their language.
P.S. If your relationship with your neighbors is a good one, tell them what you were told and ask if you may have offended them because if you have, you would like to apologize.