National, immigrant, and tourist languages

Basque, Spanish, English at a ticket vending machine. Note that a single word of English appears.
In Spain, I noticed a three-tier system of languages. I believe that we find this system often in Europe, but less so in the US. Nevertheless, the system shows up in the US especially since much of it is based in economics.

We must focus on a particular place in order to define these languages.

Here are the three basic levels:

  1. Local languages. These are the languages that find their home in the area in question.
  2. Immigrant languages. When people come from the area of another local language to live in a new area permanently, they bring their language with them. They may crystalize as a distinct community in the new area.
  3. Tourist languages. Some people come for a short time, ready to spend money on specific goods and services, such as souvenirs and museum tickets. Many of them may speak other languages.

In Spain I’ve noticed these levels play out in a particular way.

  1. I spent time in Madrid and in the Basque Country. As a result, I heard the local languages of Spanish (or Castillano as many call it in Spain) in Madrid and Spanish plus a very little bit of Basque where I was in the Basque Country. Because of the historical overlap between Spanish and Basque-speaking areas, we could probably call Spanish a local language of the Basque country, as well. Beyond the historical context, the language is a local language functionally, as all people in the cities–and most in the country–speak it.
  2. I was surprised at how little I heard immigrant languages. When I walked past Arabic restaurants, I spoke a little Arabic with them. At one restaurant, I spoke Moroccan Dialect and heard a family speaking Levantine. We bought ice cream at a shop, where the proprieter was speaking Chinese with his family. (They were from Shenzhen 深圳, so I assume they were speaking some sort of Cantonese.) Since many of the immigrants here come from North and West Africa, I can speak French to the majority of them. I got into a conversation with one gentleman selling bracelets to cafe customers, and he was a Wolof-speaking immigrant from Senegal. (I should have been paying more attention to La Polyglotte this week!) I overheard a few West African languages spoken, but could not identify them. (The people I saw were street merchants looking over their shoulder at the police.)
  3. Since I’ve been spending time at old churches and popular shopping areas, I hear French, Portuguese, German, Russian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and even a little Dutch.

On signs in Spain, you see Spanish (Castillano) every time. In Madrid, signs are usually limited to Spanish. Once I went to the Basque Country, however, signs often included Basque in addition to Spanish. Rarely did I see Basque only, with the exception of graffiti, which is almost always in Basque.

In the touristy areas of Madrid, English is surprisingly rare. In some museums, signs appear in Spanish without English. Some people in the tourism indistury show a surprisingly low level of English. One time, we got hot chocolates at the famous San Gines Chocolate shop, which always seems full of tourists. A young Indian woman was ordering in line in front of me. She asked if she could have milk. The cashier clearly understood her order in English, but was not comfortable actually speaking, so she would answer in Spanish, “¿Con leche?” (“With milk?”) The Indian woman couldn’t understand, and so repeated herself, and the cashier repeated herself. As they both got more frustrated, I told the Indian woman, “Leche means ‘milk,'” which clarified everything, so she got her drink.

When I look at the culture, I see a taxonomy for languages learned. One learns the native language(s) of one’s home. Then one learns tourist languages, starting with English. Immigrant languages come last. I never heard any non-natives speaking an immigrant language, but I found on line a few brick-and-mortar schools in Madrid to learn Arabic (including Moroccan), Chinese, and even Wolof.

This taxonomy seems pretty typical: first, the mother tongue; second, the language of economic advantage; third, the language of others in the community. This is a common scheme for Europe. The US is similar, except that the native and tourist language happen to be the same. The fact that many people in the Basque Country function bilingually complicates the matter. 

Nevertheless, this schema is probably over-simplified. For example, I heard that more transplants to the Basque country from Senegal speak Basque that those from other parts of Spain. Basque can offer economic opportunity for some, but not necessarily anyone. Furthermore, I would certainly like to meet the folks who are learning Wolof and Moroccan Arabic in Madrid to understand their motivations.

What are the languages in your area? Why do people speak them? Learn them?

4 thoughts on “National, immigrant, and tourist languages

  1. The closest I’ve seen to that dynamic was in Hawai’i. The locals all spoke Hawai’i pidgin, and the trash cans in McDonald’s said “Mahalo” instead of “Thank You.” Of course, all the military people / other mainland imports spoke English primarily, but in the touristy areas all the signs also had Japanese because of the number of Japanese tourists.

    I really enjoyed the cadence of the pidgin language – you relax just listening to it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Pates

    The life insurance advert I’m seeing in the banner ads is wonderfully insightful: Don’t get sucker punched; Rest in Peace.


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