While sipping my hot coffee in La Bondiet Café in Cusco on the Ave. of Culture in the neighborhood of Monasterios some two or three miles from the Plaza de Armas, I could not help overhearing a conversation in English. A respite from the tourist scene in downtown Cusco, lately more and more foreigners, mostly Americans judging by the language of which I heard traces, have started going there.
Many are students, studying, I guess, at one of the language academies that have opened near by or another educational institution, after all education and volunteerism as tourism have become lucrative for locals.
This day, though, the three women seated in front of me were conversing loudly in English and, though I tried to concentrate on my writing and reading, I could not help but be part of their talk, even if a passive part who pretended he did not hear.
One of the women wore a T-shirt boldly proclaiming some sort of pride in Dallas and so I assumed she was from there. Nothing bigger than Texas boosterism, as I know from growing up and the living in Austin for ten years, while studying.
In this case, the were chatting about all kinds of things, including the school where they taught English. After a while, as teachers often do, they began complaining about their students. That is no big deal, in itself. People gripe about work and about clients. It is normal and helps them continue with their job.
I could not help admiring them for living and working in a country not their own, especially when it became obvious from their interactions with the waiter that they had very little Spanish and what they did have carried a very thick American accent. They could not quite get their lips and tongue to tangle well with the rapid-fire sounds of Spanish, even of the highland Cusco sort.
As I said, I admired them. It is hard to live in a different country from one’s own, especially when you are struggling with a language and it is very difficult to learn another way of speaking once you are an adult, though it is possible. Your efforts almost always will be straightjacketed by the language you grew up speaking.
They managed to order and returned to their conversation about management and classes. Then one of the women started talking about how unintelligent her students were in Cusco, how they could not seem to manage even the basics of English pronunciation and, as a result, in her opinion grammar.
To this another of the women added that she was baffled with the students. She gave a telling example. She said they just could not seem to say the simplest of things, even though she could not say the simplest of things in Spanish, but her frustration was all with them. For example, she held forth, “they cannot say the word mall. They go there all the time. It is important to them, but they just refuse to say it right. They always say moll instead of mall. Can you believe it.”
Oh my, I suddenly felt I was watching the days when Spaniards like Pizarro’s gang descended on Quechua speaking Cuzco and pummeled people from not being able to handle the most basic aspects of God’s language, Spanish. I was also transported to my childhood in New Mexico and West Texas where I witnessed Spanish speaking kids be mercilessly teased and have the dogs of language set on them. They were sometimes physically punished.
These women seemed to have no awareness of how much people struggle to make the sounds of English, that foreign tongue that they need for jobs and especially for tourism, a language the women had learned from their birth, fortunately for them. Despite being language teachers and living in a foreign land, they did not empathize with the travails of learning a tongue not your own.
Their mispronunciations in Spanish came to seem deliberate to me, like those of so many English speakers in the greater South West, where despite living around Spanish their whole lives, mangle it in order to carefully illustrate their status as Anglos. The sociolinguist Jane Hill has written at length about this language variety of the border, broken Spanish, sometimes performed deliberately (as I often did in joking, me no Speako Spanisho, even though I did and well. In that was the irony), and sometimes without thought. It is a result of the social and linguistic inequality of Texas and the greater border area with all its Del Tacos, and Vista Mars, and so on.
I found myself getting angry and defensive for their Peruvian students who work so hard to master a tongue in which spelling is a nightmare and pronunciation itself a labyrinth. So I got up and left before I said something I would later regret.
Nonetheless, I was sad and somewhat ashamed for the cultural and linguistic blindness of these people and many others with whom I shared a passport.
They were missing a very important point. Their students were Spanish speakers and in their language the sound the English mall sounds like moll. Austin is frequently called Óh-steen by Spanish speakers in Texa for that reason. But there is more. Spanish has a word mal, pronounced like how the women wanted their students to say mall. It means bad or evil.
If the students were to perform the pronunciation the teachers wanted, they would be mangling understanding since their friends would at best hear a pun between the place hey love to go and have fun, el mall, and mal, bad and evil. Surely the mall’s marketers and the students’ friends would not want that. So it is pronounced moll, following the implicit rules of language pronunciation and usage.
It would be good for the growing throng of foreign English teachers in Cusco to be aware of how language works and to thoroughly immerse themselves in Spanish (and Quechua)