While in Boston, I took the opportunity to meet up with some friends who live there, which was very nice. At one point a conversation arose that I think is worth mentioning here. Two of the friends are Catalan and have been living in a predominately Hispanic area of Boston. One of them was very critical of the quality of the Spanish there, and I thought what he said gave an interesting insight into non-linguists’ attitudes about language. First, he said he’d initially been of the view that these people spoke their own dialect of Spanish, and that the way they used the language differently wasn’t necessarily worse. Then, he said, he’d decided that it clearly was worse. I couldn’t really make out what made one non-standard-Castilian variant worse than another, although (perhaps predictably) variants originating in English are apparently bad. He made a not unreasonable point at the end that maybe they just shouldn’t call it Spanish, and I thought this implied an interesting relationship between perceptions of grammaticality and perceptions of the dialect-language continuum.
Finally, he noted that the speakers themselves think they’re using very bad Spanish. I think this is significant. If these speakers are genuinely trying to speak European Spanish and failing, then—to the extent that their language differs from European Spanish—they clearly are doing something wrong and their language clearly is littered with mistakes. But this seems wrong. It seems rather absurd that they should genuinely be trying to speak European Spanish. Their mistake (or rather, their peculiar assumption) is, it seems to me, that they think they should be. Or that they don’t think they should be, but that they think European Spanish is much better. That sort of linguistic attitude is very common, but very sad—rather akin to people with darker skin who think it’s better to be lighter. I’m glad that this view isn’t as common now in many parts of the world as it once was, but it seems to have left its linguistic sister behind.