I’ve had the tremendous opportunity this year of meeting and spending time with a lot of people from an incredibly diverse array of backgrounds. Consequently, I’ve been able to flesh out what for years had been superficial observations and personal theories concerning individuals from ethnic groups as they interacted with a language not traditionally spoken within their countries of origin. The idea of growing up in a culture in which one language is spoken at home and another elsewhere is something I can’t personally relate to, but which has fascinated me and made me wonder to which degree the inherited, or “source” language may contribute to the formation of an individual’s identity, and to which degree it may not. Similarly, questions concerning the degree in which an inherited language could hinder or encourage an individual to take on the adopted, or “host” identity of the country he or she is born in had always struck me as curious. Though I still can’t claim to have achieved more than a series of educated, subjective observations, I believe that by posing five specific questions to six individuals comprising three different cultural and ethnic backgrounds I’ve been able to form a limited hypothesis about what growing up in Madrid as an ethnic minority could be like. I’d like to have delved more deeply into each person’s background, taking into consideration their parents’ social, economic and political backgrounds, but time did not permit.

Originally I’d thought it a good idea to survey individuals from peripheral areas within Spain. However, it soon became clear to me that surveying individuals whose backgrounds were utterly different from anyone culturally tied to Spain would be far more interesting. Thus, through a little luck and a lot of tenacity, I had the good fortune of interviewing two individuals of Pakistani heritage, two of Indian origin, and three of Moroccan origin, all of whom were between 20 and 30 years old, and whose identities will remain anonymous. The questions I posed were the following: (1) of the two languages, which did/do you identify with most? (2) Did you feel encouraged to speak your mother tongue growing up? (3) Have you ever feel pressured to speak Spanish growing up? (4) Of what use has your mother tongue been to you living in Spain? (5) How do you feel Spanish has benefited you personally?

The answers I received weren’t what I anticipated. Individuals from Morocco, whose geographic proximity is far greater than that of any other country involved, responded that they felt more identified with the Spanish language growing up, and hadn’t received any kind of encouragement to invest time or energy in their mother tongue while growing up. Linguistically speaking, both responded positively to how being multilingual affected them. They both affirmed that speaking French and Arabic from birth afforded them greater opportunities in their professional life, but were less positive when it came talking about social advantages. They both attested to feeling “pressured to speak Spanish whenever possible,” and felt at times “ostracized by classmates when speaking in Arabic.” “Spanish has been useful,” said one, “to feel like a part of society and to meet people,” but mention of personal gain was not made. In spite of this, both were resolute in conveying their affinity for the Spanish language, and the opportunities that being culturally and linguistically attached to their parents’ culture as well as being European citizens has afforded them.

When I surveyed the individuals of Pakistani and Indian origin, the results were varied. All four individuals agreed that they identified with the language they grew up with at home, namely Urdu and Tamil, though in varying degrees. Similarly, both groups responded affirmatively that they had been encouraged by family, both in Spain and abroad, not only to speak their mother tongues, but to learn to read and write it as well. Their response to the third question yielded differing results. Individuals of both Pakistani and Indian heritage stated that they felt an unwelcome pressure growing up to speak only Spanish, and were even discouraged from communicating in their mother tongues with their siblings at school. Conversely, the other two participants stated that they did not feel pressured to speak Spanish, and had rather enjoyed speaking it from an early age. These two also stated that, in spite of an affinity for their mother tongue and culture, that they consider themselves “absolutely and uniquely Spanish.” None of the four participants stated that their respective mother tongues had benefited them in their professional lives, at least not directly, but all of them stated that they felt connected to communities within Spain that speak their language, and had secured professional opportunities as a result. “The fact that many people here speak my language makes it easier for me to connect with people that understand me.”  Interestingly enough, two of the participants, both of Pakistani origin, have recently secured jobs with Indian companies in South America, and view Spanish as a tremendous help to them as they pursue engineering careers abroad. The individuals of Indian heritage, both students, said that Spanish had made studying at a first-rate university possible, but, as one said, “finding work could be difficult with just the Spanish language.”

Though varied and sometimes inconsistent, the answers I received from the participants weren’t entirely distinct. The one distinguishable parallel was the seeming affinity each one of them had for the Spanish language, in spite of what some described as the intrinsic expectation that they identified themselves as Spanish, and with the Spanish language. None of the participants suggested that their efforts to maintain ties to their respective cultures of origin had been impeded, and all of them stated that the only pressure they felt was one to adapt to the language and culture of the country in which they were residing. As a result, I’m able to conclude that cultural and linguistic diversity in Spain, at least through the eyes of the individuals I interviewed, is encouraged to exist within the framework of Spanish culture, and that, while imperfect, the idea of reciprocity seems to be working.