Language lost in translation

Students should use slang from other cultures respectfully.

siani-colonAfter growing up all my life in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia, I’m used to seeing bodegas — mini-marts that primarily cater to Spanish-speaking communities.

Recently, I heard one of my classmates refer to a bodega as a “papi-store,” and something about it rubbed me the wrong way. They could just be saying papi-store as the “Spanish version” of mom-and-pop store, but to attach “papi” also seemed to conjure up a stereotypical image of what the store and its owners looked like.

I wondered if I was overreacting, but this wasn’t the first time I heard a Spanish term exploited and appropriated by a non-Spanish speaker.

Of course, languages are constantly evolving and borrowing from each other. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when people misuse the words they’re borrowing from a different culture, respect is lost in translation. Speakers need to acknowledge and show understanding of the communities from which they borrowing their slang.

“When there’s an appropriation, it’s total disregard for the culture that the words come from,” said Aaron X. Smith, an assistant professor of Africology and African American studies. “If you’re just cherry-picking the words out to talk like people and not really appreciating the people as people, then it becomes problematic. You don’t even talk to me but then you’re going to go ahead and talk like me.”

Appropriation doesn’t just occur with words from other languages. Even in the English language, words that originated in African-American communities have been integrated into mainstream discourse, and are now widely spoken by non-Black people.

I’ve noticed students borrow slang like “bae,” “ratchet,” “lit” and “fleek,” which Smith said originated within African-American communities.

Smith said these words are often appropriated to the point where they aren’t even properly used anymore.

“I would consider certain slang words authentic until they reach the point of crossing over,” Smith said. “At such a point, they seem to lose their appeal and lose their power, because in that exchange of language, it’s strengthening that we speak a certain way that everyone else isn’t in on the conversation.”

Appropriation is based on a power dynamic where those in the dominant position take something from those below them and use it however they want.

I’ve noticed this in specific instances of Spanish words being borrowed. Often these words are used in ways that are vulgar or simply grammatically incorrect. They sometimes aim to oversexualize or make a joke out of the Latino community.

I’ve heard non-Spanish speakers sexualize the words “mami” and “papi” to refer to someone who they find attractive, but in actuality Spanish speakers use these terms to refer to their parents.

“With the example of Spanish words being incorporated in American English, and in some cases badly mispronounced, the people doing that are most likely not going to be corrected,” said Paul Garrett, an anthropology professor.  “Even if they are corrected, they’re going to feel like, ‘Come on, I’m just trying to have a little fun here putting a little Spanish in my English. I’m not really trying to speak Spanish.’ They’re using it in a way where they perceive to be kind of humorous.”

Kassandra Nevarez, a junior economics major, said she thinks using “mock-Spanish” is a form of cultural appropriation in that non-native speakers are seen as “trendy and cool, while the natives are seen as others and foreigners.”

“Mock-Spanish has been used toward me in what feels like an attempt to dumb me down,” Nevarez said. “It also dumbs down connotations and mixes up definitions and pronunciation.”

Orlando Sánchez, a junior Latin American studies major, said he usually sees problematic usage of Spanish more on social media than in person.

“Oftentimes I see it on social media, since they are careful to seem respectful in person,” he said. “I once saw a party flyer for ‘Drinko de Mayo’ on Twitter and they blocked everyone who rightly criticized it.”

“They only wish to have fun with microaggressions and not be attacked for it,” he added.

The imbalance of power among racial groups is apparent when some groups are ridiculed and face discrimination because of the way they speak, but those borrowing their words are seen as cultured or funny.

It doesn’t seem fair for communities of color to be ostracized for the way they speak when others borrow their words without the same negative experiences.

“If you’re in the position of being able to pick and choose different aspects of the culture or language and you’re not even attentive or aware of the different types of daily discriminations or microaggressions that people of that background deal with, that can cause bad feelings,” Garrett said.

While I don’t think students should be discouraged from learning about different languages and cultures, it’s important they understand these terms in more than their borrowed context.

They need to understand the communities from which they’re drawing, and the experiences those people have had while using those words.

They need to borrow words thoughtfully and respectfully, because words are powerful.

Siani Colon can be reached at

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