By: Camila Guerrero

July 13, 2022

I noticed a slightly perplexing pattern recently when conducting interviews with bilingual Spanish/English speakers: when offered their choice of languages, the interviewees consistently selected English. I did not ask interviewees why they made their choice, but after spending some time reflecting on various elements of the interviews, I have developed some potential reasons. The bilingual speakers may have chosen English over Spanish because of the length of time they have lived in the United States, the workplace- like environment of an interview, or the presence of a non-Spanish speaker.

I recently had the opportunity to utilize my bilingual skills as a native Spanish speaker for a project with the Morton Arboretum when I had the privilege of interviewing 5 bilingual Spanish-speakers from Chicagoland via Zoom. For this project we wanted to ensure that we could talk to some of the Spanish-speaking community around the Arboretum, and thus decided to recruit those who were Spanish-only speakers or bilingual Spanish/English speakers. The majority of our group of participants ended up being bilingual, and at the beginning of every interview we made sure they had control over what language they wanted to proceed in. All of them chose to speak in English despite having the opportunity and ability to speak in Spanish. It came as a bit of a surprise to me because I thought most people would jump at the chance to speak in their native language.

The first reason that I thought of was the fact they had maybe lived in the United States for decades, or their whole lives, meaning English was most likely the language they used most often. However, after digging a little deeper I found that The Pew Research Center conducted a study on Hispanic bilingual people and found that Hispanic respondents chose to use English or Spanish depending on the setting. The study states that 60% of bilingual Hispanic workers are more likely to use English than Spanish in the workplace. Although the participants in our study were encouraged to choose whichever language felt most comfortable for them, it could be that the environment we created played a more significant impact on the choice than we had anticipated. The interview, although not a job, was a task that they were being compensated for, their insights and conversation for an incentive. This could have created an environment similar to that of a workplace, and therefore resulted in people’s decision to use primarily English throughout the interview. It should also be noted that these interviews had a non-Spanish speaking person from our team present. We made sure to disclose that there was no need to include them in the conversation, and that they were there solely for any potential troubleshooting we might need. Could their presence have been a motivator to speak in English? Or even a reason to speak in Spanish, to keep certain thoughts between oneself and the participant? I certainly have been guilty of selectively speaking Spanish to prevent unwanted ears from listening in.

Although participants did not choose Spanish as their language for the interviews, there were still advantages to having a bilingual interviewer. Ensuring that the participants have a choice is important to establishing a comfortable environment for everyone in the conversation. If English had been the only option, the participants would not have had the opportunity to slip in Spanish words or phrases that helped them express themselves. I had a few participants speak to me in Spanglish, interweaving Spanish and English words, or flipping from one language to the other. For those that did this, it came naturally, and when they struggled to find the right word in one language, they smoothly transitioned into the other. I find myself doing this often as well, filling in the gaps with the language that can best express my thoughts or feelings. This would not have been possible if the interviewer was not bilingual. The presence of a bilingual interviewer, contrary to my earlier hypothesis, could have created a more open environment, less like that of a workplace and established a space where Spanglish felt welcome.

Language plays a significant role in how we connect and communicate with others. As we continue to do more multilingual projects to better understand a broader scope of communities, I hope to develop my understanding of the multiple factors that contribute to people’s use of their bilingualism or multilingualism. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you might choose to speak in one language versus another; feel free to email me .

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