“Speaking of manners and race, what are the rules, inside your race but outside your culture, for correcting a friend or loved one’s English? I’m a young African-American professional, and the woman I’m involved with is, too. She is of African (and other) descent but from a Spanish-speaking country, where she lived until her family emigrated when she was in junior high, came to the U.S. and began using English predominantly.
“She’s very bright, highly accomplished and upwardly mobile. Despite being well educated, she sometimes makes errors with language when speaking and writing. Examples: She will write or say, ‘Is snowing’ instead of ‘It is snowing’ or ‘It’s snowing.’ She also says and writes ‘mines’ instead of ‘mine,’ which likely has more to do with where she was raised. When I see these errors on her social media accounts, I am embarrassed for her and worry about her making these mistakes in a professional context. But I have no idea whether it would be culturally insensitive to correct her. I do not want the woman I care about to think I think less of her, but I also don’t want her to be in the dark here.” —A Bilingual’s Boyfriend
First, I think your concerns about making your girlfriend feel “embarrassed” and your suggestion that her grammar mistakes might make her less “upwardly mobile” or “educated” are a bit overblown. To de-escalate the whole “I don’t want her to come off as dumb” thing, think of it this way: Being bilingual means she knows a bonus language—meaning that she’s probably twice as skilled at languages as most of her friends and colleagues.
If she’s muddling a few of the details of the second one, it’s most likely because “she knows the grammatical rules but probably thinks in Spanish and is translating what she is saying or writing as she is in the process of sharing her thoughts,” says Pauline M. Campos, Latina magazine’s advice-and-relationship columnist. “It’s easy to revert to the grammatical rules of the dominant language,” she explains.
Also, don’t be too quick to assume that she’s making outright mistakes rather than simply relaxing in certain conversations or environments—especially on social media. What you’re observing could be no more than a little loosening up, combined with a touch of code-switching, according to Kimberly Eison Simmons, professor of anthropology and African-American studies and director of Latin American studies at the University of South Carolina. Simmons reminded me that, especially for people who straddle communities and languages, “There are certain things you might say in different contexts that give you that cultural capital.”
To the extent that you do think your girlfriend really is clueless about the errors and would want to correct them, there’s no need to have a huge confrontation with her or make a scene. Consider doing it gently.
“As a first-generation Mexican American, I grew up listening to relatives mispronounce and misspeak in English while being corrected by the same relatives for mispronouncing while speaking Spanish. Being corrected by loved ones can oftentimes be more embarrassing than being corrected by strangers,” says Campos. Her suggestion is that simply using the correct word or phrase in your reply—whether on social media or in real life—is a great way to “ease in without hurting feelings.”
Simmons, who has observed people learning the fine points of both English and Spanish, agrees that you should “subtly come behind with a comment” that uses the language correctly. (“I know, I can’t believe it’s snowing!”)
You can also be more direct, though. “There’s more leeway there because of that shared experience—African American, Afro-Latina … We’re looking out for each other, so it’s corrective, but in a different kind of way,” say Simmons, who is also the author of Reconstructing Racial Identity and the African Past in the Dominican Republic. So if you decide to confront the issue head-on, do it in a careful, delicate and loving manner, starting out with, “There’s something I’ve noticed … ,” she advises.
I always think it’s important to remember that if you struggle to be straightforward, or even lighthearted, about racial and cultural differences without offense, discomfort or misunderstandings, it might be a signal that you may be missing some of the foundation of a healthy relationship (talking about your different backgrounds, what they mean and what your feelings and sensitivities about them are). Being cautious and preoccupied with how to avoid offense is for co-workers and strangers, not someone you share your life with.
So I don’t see anything wrong with doing the obvious and simply asking how she’d like you to respond when she makes a mistake. Ask her, “If you say something that I notice isn’t standard English, do you want me to correct it, or is that annoying?”
Both Campos and Simmons think it would be great—for these types of exchanges and for all of your other interactions—if you expressed an interest in learning Spanish from your girlfriend to create a more equal playing field, where you can be the student as well as a teacher.
“Together, they can pick up the missing parts while growing closer as a couple,” says Campos. Simmons suggests that the two of you will have a better foundation for an exchange about different kinds of sentence structure and how concepts are expressed if you’re actively grappling with these things, too.
I usually hand out the kudos-for-caring in this column, but this time I’ll take relationship expert Campos’ suggestion.
“Your reader needs to buy himself a cookie or something, because he deserves it. By asking how to be culturally sensitive, he demonstrated that he already is,” she told me. I agree. However you deal with this dilemma, I’m confident that your compassion will translate.
The Root’s senior staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “Neither Etiquette nor Black Culture Requires Eating Unhealthy Food”