You talk funny. That was the message from some Arizona viewers to a TV anchorwoman in Phoenix. In response, Vanessa Ruiz of 12 News recently took to the air to defend her habit of using correct Spanish pronunciation and rolling her Rs.
“Some of you may have noticed that I pronounce things a little differently than what you are used to,” she said. “…And I know that change can be difficult, but it’s normal and over time I know that everything falls into place.”
Surely we have reached the silly season when English speakers are complaining about a newswoman correctly pronouncing Spanish words and names. It is sad that Ruiz was compelled to defend herself for doing nothing wrong. This episode speaks to the loaded topic of the supposed increased use of Spanish in the United States, which some apparently see as a threat to our national identity.
No one was accusing Ruiz of lapsing into Spanish during her nightly news broadcasts. But one thing some viewers objected to was her habit of pronouncing local place names, such as the city of “Mesa,” as these names were meant to be pronounced. They preferred that a journalist who has lived and worked throughout the United States and Latin America pronounce such words their way (“May-Sah”).
This is an Anglicized version of the word, which happens to be linguistically incorrect. Ruiz’s habit of occasionally rolling her Rs, which also annoyed some viewers, is in fact correct when pronouncing names that include “RRs.” This is not just exaggerating the “Latin-ness” of a word, either; the double-R (“RR”) is a specific sound in the Spanish language.
This whole commotion is about something bigger than Ruiz. As our country becomes more diverse, there seems to be an ongoing, unfounded fear that Spanish is displacing English as our dominant language. Consider that there have been controversies over students reciting the pledge of allegiance in Spanish in California or speaking Spanish on a school bus in Nevada, and over employees speaking Spanish at work. The fact that the dustup over Ruiz has reached the pages of The New York Times is a bit ridiculous.
Here’s the reality: A report from the Pew Research Center in May found that more Latinos are becoming English proficient. A record 33.2 million Latinos speak English, while the share of Latinos who speak Spanish at home has been declining. Contrary to the notion that Hispanic immigrants come here and do not learn our language, Pew found that the longer Latino immigrants stayed, the more their English proficiency rose. Correspondingly, Pew noted, in the future fewer U.S. Hispanics are expected to speak Spanish.
The pointless debate over language periodically spills over into the political arena as well. This week, GOP front-runner Donald Trump took a jab at Jeb Bush (who is married to a Mexican woman and is fully bilingual) for using Spanish on the campaign trail. “I like Jeb,” Trump told Breitbart News. “He’s a nice man. But he should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”
What set Trump off was Bush’s comments to a Miami audience that “el hombre no es conservador,” or “the man is not a conservative.”
In this instance, any disagreement over language use is particularly irrelevant. In a poll of Latino voters this summer Univision found that 68% said that a candidate’s fluency in Spanish would not influence their vote. So Trump was off base in criticizing Bush for being bilingual, and Bush is misguided if he assumes his fluency en Español will win over Latinos.
Sure, Ruiz’s enunciating properly in Spanish may be a bit jarring to some watching her on TV. But she is delivering the news in a state that is 30% Hispanic, and that ranks sixth in the nation for its Latino population.
Ruiz is right to honor herself and her heritage. And she is actually providing a great example of a successful bilingual professional to Latinos and Anglos alike. Ruiz has said she didn’t meant to disrespect anyone, and that her goal is to make her newscasts “open and inclusive to everyone.” What’s wrong with that?