From the bilingual signage, to the plethora of options on local Spanish radio, there’s nowhere quite like Miami when it comes to language culture. You’ll quickly discover that there’s not a man, woman, or child in the 305 who won’t follow up your “hola” with a “¿como estas?” or who won’t understand when you ask them, in Spanish, where you can find a good colada at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. While this can be exciting for any bilingual Latina visiting Miami — especially for one who doesn’t get an opportunity to speak Spanish on a regular basis — any bilingual local can tell you that navigating the language landscape here isn’t as easy at it looks.
Talk to most second-generation Latinos here, and you’ll surely hear plenty of stories about how they once completely insulted a sweet little German woman in Miami Beach by asking her for directions in Spanish, or how they inadvertently implied that their bestie’s dad had terrible language skills when they replied in Spanish after he asked how the family was in his broken English.
Or what about the cute Colombian guy your friend met at that bar, who was clearly annoyed that she didn’t tell him she spoke Spanish after the two had been chatting it up in English for the last 20 minutes.
Yes, friends, deciding when and where to speak English vs. Spanish in Miami is a daily struggle, because while most people have accepted the city as fully bilingual, others, well, haven’t, and things can get touchy when you don’t correctly guess someone’s preference.
This phenomenon of language choice, explains Phillip Carter, PhD, an assistant professor of English and linguistics at Florida International University in Miami, is especially tricky in this city. “In linguistics terms, all languages are created equal, but in social terms they’re not equal,” says Carter. For each individual, both English and Spanish hold different social meanings and values, and it can get awkward when you get your guesswork wrong.
“People get anxious about how they believe they’re being assessed by the person who’s speaking to them, and what it means to be addressed either first in English or first in Spanish.”
For instance, for one Latino, adopting the English language may be very important, perhaps even a symbol of their "belonging" in the United States. Speaking to this person in Spanish and disregarding their efforts in trying to speak English could easily make them feel hurt or offended, even if you were only trying to accommodate them.
On the other hand, a different Latino may have chosen to live in Miami because it is such a bilingual city, and speaking to this person in English (when you could address them in Spanish) could come off as unwelcoming.
He also says that as the number of Miami-born bilingual Latinos continues to grow, so does anxiety around language. Carter explains that us second-generation Latinos each have our own stories around language as well. While our families have encouraged us to embrace Spanish, our schools and workplaces are often more centered around English, which creates mixed messages.
“There’s a broader social problem because the city hasn’t 'officially' sided either language — or fully embraced bilingualism in schools — people will continue to form their own perceptions of what language we 'should' be speaking."
The verdict: While most people in Miami will happily have a conversation with you in either language, don’t be completely surprised if someone gives you the side-eye when you order your desayuno in Spanish (or English, for that matter). And, according to Carter, this probably won't change anytime soon.