Linguists Trying To Define Chicano English

EL PASO, Texas—Mexican-Americans who spice their English sentences with Spanish phrases like “que paso?” are speaking “Chicano English” — a dialect some linguists says should get as much recognition as “black English.”

About 40 linguists, educators and speech specialists from across the country are attending a three-day research conference at the University of Texas at El Paso, the first such conference to deal exclusively with Chicano English. The conference ends Saturday.

“The major thing we’re trying to accomplish is to describe just what Chicano English is,” said Gustavo Gonzalez of the University of California at Santa Barbara. “We’re trying to see just what is the difference between Chicano English and standard English.”

The researchers say determining that Chicano English is a legitimate variation of English could mean differences in bilingual education techniques and in the way the Mexican-American community looks at itself.

“We’re trying to do something similar to what has been going on in black English which has been recognized as a separate variety of English,” said Gustavo Gonzalez of the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Some educators say that black English is a legitimate dialect and should be recognized by teachers attempting to teach reading in standard English.

A federal judge in Ann Arbor, Mich., ruled in 1979 that seven black elementary school students were denied access to an equal education because their teachers failed to consider black English in standard English lessons. The district was required to send teachers to black English workshops.

In December 1980, the school system decided that the crash training was not worth its cost and that the training should be scaled back.

Gonzalez said the forms taken by Chicano English usually depend on the person’s level of fluency in English.

He said the dialect can include plugging Spanish words into otherwise English sentences, dropping words, misusing standard English verb forms, using different intonations and forming “Spanglish” words that combine the two languages.

Jacob Ornstein-Galicia, a UTEP professor emeritus who organized the conference, said some Mexican-Americans are discriminated against because they speak Chicano English.

“If I go in and ask for a job speaking Chicano English, then the man who’s doing the hiring may say, ‘He’s got a bad accent. People won’t be able to understand him.’ And he won’t hire me whether my accent is incomprehensible or not,” he said.

“We need to study the dialects and find out what their meaning is in our culture,” said Ornstein-Galicia.

Gonzales said a Mexican-American may slur English words or use Spanish words in otherwise English conversations.

He said Chicano English substitutes “bato” for “guy,” “comal” for “tortilla pan,” and “que paso?” for “what’s happening?”

Gonzalez said recognition of Chicano English could help Mexican-Americans be more comfortable with their ethnicity.

“It will be a question of self-identity,” he said. “I’m not sure we have gotten over the stigma that our dialect of Spanish is OK. Now, if we can do the same with Chicano English — show that it’s acceptable — then we will be getting somewhere.”

But acceptance will be a long time coming, both men admit.

“As far as this conference leading to national recognition of Chicano English, I don’t think it could,” said Gonzalez.

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