When my editor and I first talked about writing a piece on the Spanish language, we only talked about focusing on different accents and what impressions accents leave on people.
It wasn't until I interviewed sociolinguist Carol Klee, who is a professor at the University of Minnesota, that I learned my questions on Spanish accents were really more about Spanish dialects.
I grew up with the impression that dialects were indigenous tongues. Klee helped me understand where that perception comes from.
"There is a big debate about what distinguishes a dialect from a language," said Klee. "Often times in Latin America, the indigenous languages are called dialects because they're kind of looked down upon as not real languages. They might not have a writing system. They might not have written literature, and so they're called dialects."
I was embarrassed I didn't know the difference between dialect and language, but really grateful I now knew. With that new knowledge under my belt, I was ready to talk to Latin Americans about Spanish dialects.
I interviewed a dynamic group of Latinos at St. Odilia's Catholic Church in Shoreview. They were all very excited to talk about their language. Upon meeting them in person, we laughed about the miscommunication we had already shared through e-mail.
The person who helped me connect with this group sent out an e-mail in Spanish saying, "Join us to talk to Ambar next Sunday after Mass." I immediately replied asking, "I thought we were meeting this Sunday. Has that changed?" I learned that in Colombia, when talking in the context of dates, people say "next" to mean the upcoming rather than the following date.
Throughout my conversations with them, we continuously had to pause and clarify words we were using. For example, a few of the people with whom I spoke are doctors and nurses. They kept saying, "medico," a term that makes me think of a medic. Medico is very vague to me, so I asked, "When you say medico, do you mean doctor?" They'd just laugh and say yes!
One gentleman used a word I didn't catch at the time, because I was distracted by other people. After listening to my tape over and over again and isolating what he said, I still can't figure what the word he used means, or even how to spell it. I'll have to play the sound over the phone for my mom, and maybe she can take a crack at what he's saying.
I was nervous at first about sharing this story with listeners. I wondered why Minnesotans would care. Besides the fact that Spanish is the second most spoken language after English, and the Spanish-speaking population in Minnesota is growing rapidly, we can all simply relate to this story through our own personal experiences speaking in English. It doesn't matter where we're from.